When I met Joanne Greenbaum last year in Jim Hyde’s kitchen, I didn’t know that she was the painter whose work I had admired for many years. Being a sort of on-call conversationalist, I was expected to talk to whomever was seated around the big, crowded table while Jim was busy cooking some fish-ratatouille concoction jammed with his favorite ingredients, anchovies and capers. While his back was inevitably to us, he’d usually be listening in, and I would often provoke him to turn around and cut me off, one way or another. In any event, Joanne and I struck up a great conversation and our dialogue has steadily progressed from there. My goal in the interview was to go in unprepared and let the words speak for themselves.
Joanne Greenbaum As artists we fantasize about interviews. For instance I’m working and I think, If someone were interviewing me right now, this is what I would say—and it’s really eloquent and perfect and beautiful. But then you’re never able to say those things.
Jeremy Sigler But the things that come out in a conversation are often more accurate. Maybe they’re not the fantasy, but they’re more useful.
JG We think we’re better in fantasy than we are in real life, but maybe in real life we’re better.
JS I’m really down on critique right now. I’ve turned the corner and it’s gone from pure love to pure rage. Why should I teach like a real teacher when the students are not learning like real students?
JG I’m teaching one day a week in Philadelphia to grad students this term. The first day I got in there I realized I have nothing to say to these students at all! I have nothing to give them. I don’t even really have an opinion about their work. And, I still get home at the end of the day totally exhausted. I’ve been giving them something, but it isn’t critiques.
Lately, more and more people have asked to come to my studio, but I don’t want anyone else in my studio. Because, number one, I ultimately don’t care what people think about what I make and, number two, I’m tired of explaining it. I’m tired of talking about my process. I want to keep everything inward and reverential. Sometimes all I want to do is sit here at this desk and make watercolors—here’s the pile—and just be private and kind of not thinking at all.
JS Well, I suppose we could have an interview right now that never gets off the ground. (laughter)
JG Just two dumb artists talking. I love the word dumb, though. Sometimes I just go, God, I’m one of the dumb artists. Meaning that I don’t do that art talk. Not only do I refuse to do it, I can’t do it. But, knowing that about ourselves, if you want to ask me questions about my work, we could probably really get into it in an interesting way.
JS I consider myself a teacher. For me, the point of critique and artists’ discussions is—I almost want to say research. I’m not interested in critique as a form of entertainment or social networking.
JG I’ve really begun to dislike the whole culture of self-promotion.
JS I kind of love it in the sense that everybody is their own media—we’re no longer just NBC, CBS, and whatever. But if we’re going to have a conversation about your art, why shouldn’t that be a private thing? Like a glass of wine or an espresso and a dialogue where my ideas meet your ideas and it’s that simple. But I will tell you a reward for making this dialogue public—and this gets me back into the mood. My best friend, who is an artist in LA, emailed me the other day and told me that he had decided to hand out the interview I did with the performance artist Nigel Rolfe for BOMB to his students. And I suddenly had this good feeling, Someone out there has found a use for this thing. It’s about learning. I’m not really interested in academia; I am interested in curiosity and learning. And people are curious about you. They want to know what’s going on. Recently, I was standing with Charline von Heyl, Amy Sillman, and Dana Schutz at an opening. We were in this little huddle, closed off from everyone, and this vortex of people formed around us. I thought if you were standing there with me, it would feel like being with the four painters of this moment.
JG Lately a lot of young artists come up to me at events or openings and say—
JS —how much you mean to them—
JG I guess now I’m the older woman that they look up to as a role model. But I like that. I’m a very private painter and my work is obviously studio based. It looks as though I have a pretty good time in here. And I do! People ask me, “How can you be so free? How can you just do all this stuff?” And I say, “I just don’t have rules for myself and I feel pretty free.”
JS Let me just play devil’s advocate: Are you sure people don’t want to talk to you just because you’re famous?
JG I don’t think of myself as famous.
JS But you have arrived; you are a big deal in painting and people want to be a part of that. My question is whether their curiosity is intellectual and deep? Is it inspirational or aspirational? Are they aspiring to be you?
JG I think that some might want to have the type of longevity I’ve had. They’re genuinely interested in how I did my work for so many years and how it continues to grow. They’ll even say, “You’re an inspiration to me.” And I say, “Why? My life hasn’t been that great.” But, I did find this thread early on, and I’m still on it. I basically never got off.
JS Now that you put it that way, it is pretty miraculous for anyone in today’s art culture to find a thread like that and to have success over a long period of time in letting that story unfold, without being pushed off your own chart, your route. Where did you find that thread originally—can you remember?
JG It started when I was a kid, although there was no real encouragement from my parents. My earliest memory of being an artist, at the age of five, was making this abstract painting on a five-inch square piece of scrap wood in colored inks at camp. I remember the counselor telling me I was an artist. Of course I didn’t know what that meant, but I took it as a compliment. Art wasn’t something that was taught to me, it was who I was. As I got older, making art was always a place to go, to escape—in high school, in college, even though I wasn’t always good at it. I wasn’t one of the better students by any means. But I was really driven to make art no matter what.
I think for me the thread has something to do with anger and rebellion. It’s like, Fuck, if nobody believes in me, I’m going to show them that I actually can do this. But it was deeper than that. I remember going to the local library and sitting on the floor looking at all the art books, trying to figure out how they did things, like in cubism. When you said you’re a modernist, I liked that. Modernism to me was the greatest thing I had ever discovered.
JS Yeah, it was like a religion. It’s spirituality.
JG Matisse and Picasso were like religion to me. And Sonia Delaunay.
JS I could give up Catholicism for modernism. Modernism is the religion we are all supposed to have—but there has been regression. To me, modernism is psychology, first and foremost.
JG Everything I’ve learned comes from modernism. When I was in high school I used to study the collection at MoMA. Those were the days when there wouldn’t be anybody in the galleries. As a teen, I would take the train in from the suburbs and just stand or sit in the different rooms by myself. I internalized modernism—there was always something to learn from it. For instance, the progression from impressionism to cubism to abstraction. I mean, that’s so fascinating!
JS Yeah, it’s like a piano chord.
JG I’m still on that line.
JS Let’s get back to your anger, or rage. I think there’s a lot of rage in creativity.
JG I have a lot of rage in me, sometimes more and sometimes less. Rage is a great motivator.
JS Yeah, I felt some rage coming on over the last few days, and I was like, Yes, my creativity is coming back! Even some of the emails I was sending started to sound like poems to me. (laughter) Somehow the language, the angst—I’m scared of the word angst but maybe it is angst. I was getting a sense of the rub, you know, this kind of feeling that everything is not okay with me and therefore I’m going to transgress the politeness going on around here and be a little bit more risky because it’s worth it.
I don’t like the feeling of being pent up and I don’t like the feeling of being overly controlled. Your work is rebellious in that sense.
JG It is rebellious, and it’s also this stubbornness I have of sticking to painting, feeling like there’s still so much to do in the two dimensions—even though, as you see, I’m making sculpture. To me, painting is limitless; I don’t need to ironically quote modernist styles or modes of abstraction. I use all of that stuff in my work, but I believe, as corny as it sounds, that you can still be original.
JS It’s not corny to me. I love the word originality and I use when it has to do with intensity. A lot of conceptual writers, poets, and people who have become masters of appropriation—some poets that I respect a ton are missing out on all the action: writing!
JG Originality is so fraught with worry, you know. But I feel that if I work a certain way, coming from my self, I will be original. Instinct, a dirty word for women to use pertaining to their work, is undervalued as a source for big ideas. “Oh, you’re going by your instinct!”
JS Your biological clock.
JG You’re being a girl.
JS Yeah, being intuitive is feminine.
JG I hate that. The most conceptual, theoretical, strategic thinker is also going on intuition on a certain level. Just because my work is loose and handdrawn, it doesn’t necessarily translate into being intuitive. There are a lot of ideas about painting here. I think there is not great language out there for the purely visual, and art historians and others try to describe something that is so inherently preverbal. So that’s where the word intuition comes in. I think it’s the wrong word for a type of thinking that can be very deep but ultimately unexplainable.
JS Men and women can be equally deep and equally dumb. And the intellect is as stupid as the body.
JG Or, they can be the same thing. But people tend to say that intuitive painting or process painting is not original thinking.
JS Some people have a peripatetic quality of meandering. I hesitate to use the word freedom in regard to your work because using one’s intuition is not free; it’s just part of one’s mechanism to get to where one’s going. What I’m trying to say is that your work sparks a lot of interest because of its fluidity. There is nothing rigid and it’s not illustrative of some kind of heavy, overarching idea—or paradigmatic of the geometric painting from your generation.
JG I’m not illustrating anything. Yet, I feel that—especially with my paintings—I’m very rigorous in the progression from one work to the other. This is where modernism comes in. I have to learn something from each painting in order to move on. If the painting feels too familiar, or I seem to have done it before, I stop.
JS I think that’s why I related to your work the first time I saw it. I don’t know when that was in your career, but the paintings were primarily empty, with only very few marks. They were large scale, like the work you’re doing now, but it seemed like there were only a few moves in them.
JG Very few.
JS Those hooked me instantly because I understood what was at stake in them and I could tell that they were excavations, so to speak. The most important aspect in modernism that I’m talking about is self-discovery or, what you said before, self-revelation—in the sense of there being something that’s becoming apparent through this process, as opposed to a painting just being another one off the assembly line.
JG When I started making those earlier paintings, 20 years ago, there was a point when I decided I was going to start from scratch—throw out all the past work and literally start with nothing.
JS Were those the paintings that I saw back then?
JG Yeah. Those early paintings started on a white ground, which I didn’t think of as white, but as blank. Each thing I put on there was found, in a way. I had this idea of color as a found object; that it comes out of the tube so beautiful and pure. It wasn’t about purity per se but about restraint—waiting for this moment to put something down. I had all these rules where I didn’t want to paint on top of other things, and if there was a mistake, it would just become a part of the painting.
JS I have to admit, years later, particularly when I found out you were going to be in Parkett, where I was working, my first reaction was that I didn’t like you anymore.
JS I had found that you had started to put all this stuff in your paintings, and I was like, Oh, she didn’t do what I wanted her to do.
JG That’s right. There were some other people disappointed that I stopped making Joanne Greenbaums. You know, I couldn’t go to the pure. It’s a logical conclusion, but I wasn’t interested in becoming a minimalist. I wanted to put my own handwriting into the paintings. I was in this crisis—questioning what the content was. I felt that there was no content there except beauty, and how often can you make liquids flowing into colored liquids?
But I wasn’t even adding more stuff; I was adding real information to the paintings. I started layering them on top of each other to create another structure with fictional scaffolds on which to paint. It’s the process that became sort of speeded up, and I began to feel more comfortable with using more material, using thicker paint. And I became more comfortable with gesture—without it having to mean something, like the New York School. I started to be more sympathetic to a kind of painting that did whatever the hell I wanted to do.
JS Let this monster go—
JG Yeah, I let this monster out. This was a time of great anger and disappointment. I just turned inward and let it go. Now I’m in this place where—
JS Great things have happened to you since then. I had a similar experience with “letting the monster out.” I was writing these whittled-down poems that were formally very reductive, very clean, very pure. I distilled them. I had worked like this for years. At some point, I started dictating poems, pacing the room and just letting language go, and all of these things started to happen that were so natural to the way I speak, my rhythm, my pauses, everything. I had not a clue what was down on paper, but I had just had an out-of-body experience with no self-consciousness.
JG I like what you say about the out-of-body experience because I work a lot in that kind of trancelike state. I don’t listen to music when I paint, but often, especially in the evening, I have the TV on. Or I’ll have a Netflix movie on, and I’ll squeeze out a color, then have a little extra and go over to these small paintings here and put something on them. Then I go back to the movie, all at the same time. That’s the beauty of living and working in the same place. I like that kind of integration; it can be trancelike when all of a sudden you’ve got something going. I don’t plan anything out.
JS You just work directly onto the canvas, from scratch?
JG With this painting, I just put that yellow down. Then I didn’t know what to do with it, so I started scribbling with ballpoint pen and then that sat for at least three weeks. A couple of days ago, I just wanted to make this cubist structure on there. It just happened; it’s a feeling and you do it. I’m at this point where there’s no editing.
JS I’m doing a book right now, and I said to the editor, “Pretend that I’m dead. I want this to go to print without me.” But the poems are still quite edited, just not finicky, I hope. Much of the artistic process is editorial, right? When you say there is no editing, what does that really mean? There is a lot of editing.
JG For me, there’s almost no editing at a certain point. Nothing is off limits in terms of what I allow myself to do. If something feels odd, I’ll go for that, or if something feels uncomfortable or wrong, that’s what gets me going. It’s a feeling of good, I don’t know what I’m doing! I may look at something and say, I’m going to have to throw this out. Or, if something feels truly embarrassing, I turn it to the wall. Later on, it is often not embarrassing or wrong at all. I was just ahead of myself and what’s there was simply unfamiliar—therefore it becomes a place to go.
JS That’s what I meant with intensity—when that inner dialogue is going on, when you’re accepting your most awkward, uncomfortable tendencies, accepting the things that are the most easy to reject.
JG I love the struggle. The struggle is not painful at all. It’s so much fun.
JS What else is there to do?
JG Yeah, what else am I going to do with myself all day? Lately I’ve been making these paper-clay sculptures, very light-weight. It’s almost like making the stuff without much thinking. As long as it stands up and looks like something, I’m okay with it. I make a lot of these sculptures in one sitting. I haven’t figured out what this stuff is yet; I don’t know how I got on this tangent—it’s just a really different process than painting. I’ve been making sculptures for about ten years, but that’s new compared to the fact that I’ve been painting my whole life.
We’re talking about what keeps you going, and that you can’t always be so much in your head. Sometimes you need to be in your body and make three-dimensional things. I have this need to always be making things, and you can’t always make big paintings. It’s the same as these notebooks I keep where I draw a lot, where there are a lot of these free, trancelike things. I don’t want to say it’s mindless because it’s not, but what has changed lately is that I have this newfound love and respect for materials: beautiful paint, beautiful paper, beautiful clay. That really is turning me on, you know, just the stuff. So I’m thinking about getting back to some of those earlier paintings. I’ve gone from a de-material to a very material type of thing.
JS What’s nice is that none of the work looks precious or contrived—
JG No, I’m not into precious; I’m not into craft. Even if you make bad drawings, you can just stick them in a pile, go back to that pile two years later, and pick up where you left off. I do that sometimes so I don’t feel like anything is wasted.