Adam Fuss, Untitled (detail), 1991, black and white silver print, 65 × 55 inches. All photographs courtesy of Robert Miller Gallery.
Adam Fuss makes intensely beautiful photographs. The first time I saw them, several years ago at Massimo Audiello’s gallery, I couldn’t figure out what they were. They seemed like paintings. They were constantly emerging and disappearing. No matter what the imagery, they are about the alchemical nature of photographic transformation, perception, light and magic. I finally found him, and after exchanging studio visits, we sat down to talk.
Adam Fuss … It’s nice here.
Ross Bleckner You make things to compensate. That’s what being an artist is, right? Compensation.
AF What can you compensate for?
RB Not having a love in your life. It’s not permanent, Adam. I always look at the positive side of things, what I have to look forward to. When I have a boyfriend, I’m very settled. When I’m alone, I’m curious to find out who my next boyfriend’s going to be. I’m much more motivated to go out. I do these things that I would never do. That I don’t even like to do.
RB It sounds like you have some very problematic relationships. I wouldn’t stand for that shit from some kid.
AF That’s just what I realized actually, yesterday.
RB How old are you?
RB Well, you’re not that much older, either. The benefits of having a relationship with an older person is that, hopefully, they know certain things that you don’t know yet. I wish I had had an older boyfriend who could have said, “You know this hysteria you’re going through? It passes. It’s really not a big deal.” If someone had said things like that to me it would have been very calming. Just to have known what’s normal and not to have had to personalize things so much.
AF I’ve never had a relationship with a normal person; I mean a physical relationship. It would be a great thing. Not to say that older people aren’t as fucked-up as younger …
RB Well, it’s different. People who are more mature are more ready in their head. I know I’m ready in my head for things …
AF When I’m in a relationship, it’s this big thing. This is it. We’re trying to build something that’s going to last for the rest of our lives. We’re not just experiencing the moment. There’s an agenda which is the marriage of two people. Maybe that’s an unrealistic expectation to have when you meet someone.
AF You think so?
RB Yeah, it’s completely juvenile. That’s what I think. Why can’t you just say, “let’s enjoy each other for now?”
AF Now? When does now finish? Does now finish when you walk next door and fuck someone else? And that becomes now?
RB No, no, no. The point is, that if all the nows are good, then it lasts for a long time. If you really enjoy each other and let each-other grow and one of you wants to fuck around, then that has nothing to do with it. So what do they do, this twenty-five-year old you’re with?
RB Really, how long have you been together? (eating) Good!
AF It’s, ummm …
AF It’s all-grain almond flour with almond paste. I don’t think that’s fattening. I mean, it’s not full of sugar or anything.
RB Right. No sugar, I’m sure.
Adam Fuss, Untitled, 1991, cibachrome photogram, 14 × 11 inches.
AF You know, I met this person and I had a very intense experience. I really wanted this person and they didn’t want me.
RB Are you talking about right now?
AF No, I’m talking about a year ago.
RB Not the same one you’re with now?
AF Yeah … yeah.
RB What do you mean they didn’t want you?
AF Just what I mean.
RB How frustrating. So you’re still with them?
AF Well, no. I mean, look, a period went past like eight months. And during that eight months I was still mentally with this person even though they didn’t want me. I wanted them.
RB What do you mean? You weren’t together?
AF No. And then a month ago this person comes to New York and says, “I want you, and I want everything.”
RB How did they communicate with you all those eight months?
AF Very badly.
RB Were they involved with someone else? (pause) Huh?
AF I would say, yes.
RB Did you tell them, “I love you,” and all this crap?
RB You wrote her letters?
AF I beg your pardon.
RB You wrote her letters?
AF Her. (laughter)
RB Assuming it’s a her.
AF I was wondering when this person was going to have a gender. Yes, I wrote her letters. Actually, I made her tapes. I like making tapes.
RB Wow, that’s so romantic. I wish I would like someone enough to pursue them.
AF Well, the energy to pursue came from wanting this big story, of wanting this one person.
RB I don’t see what made you think you had a chance. I don’t get it. You forgot about her? And then eight months later she shows up.
AF No, I didn’t forget about her, that’s the thing. She knew eight months later that I hadn’t forgotten.
RB When you first met, what happened?
AF The very first time?
RB She’s not just a woman you saw in the distance and you started writing letters to her in order to meet…?
AF No, not at all. I was in Paris and I was in the mood to meet people. And I met this person, it was nothing particularly …
RB So it’s not like you met, had sex and fell in love, and then she said, “I have to go away. I can’t be with you.”
AF Well, that is basically what happened.
RB Oh, I see.
AF I mean that was extended over a period of time. But that’s basically what happened.
RB Interesting. Fantastic.
AF And somehow the connection made something really strong in me that lasted. And it didn’t in her.
AF And then she shows up here and says, “YES.”
RB Without a warning?
AF With a little warning.
RB So why is it so complicated? It sounds like a lover’s story with a happy ending, so far. A pursuit, a courtship, it sounds very traditional.
AF A mating. (laughter)
RB A mating.
AF … A spring-off and a separation.
RB … And a reconciliation. This was so good (the food), and this is all healthy and not fattening, right?
AF I suppose if you sit in a chair all day, it will make you fat.
RB I know, that’s why I have to go to the gym in an hour.
AF Ross, that’s a little soon to go to the gym!
RB No, an hour’s fine.
AF Your food’s not going to be digested at all.
RB I always do it.
AF I’m assuming you exercise at the gym.
RB I’m not just cruising there.
AF I like this painting of yours, it’s like a lifetime of moons.
RB (screams) That’s such a great name!
AF Three thousand moons.
RB Exactly. That’s such a good take, Adam. I’m going to write that down. A lifetime of moons …
AF You don’t have to write it down, Ross.
RB What are you talking about? I’m going to rename the painting.
AF Yeah, but it’s on the tape recorder. (laughter)
AF A lifetime of moons.
RB How long has the tape recorder been on?
AF The whole time. What’s the title?
RB It was called “Wind.” Weather like this, when the rain blows into the window so you can see the raindrops and they have this funny perspective as they’re breaking open. Wind-driven rain.
AF That’s too scientific.
RB But I like scientific names for poetic art and poetic names for scientific art. I like to enhance the inherent dichotomies in paintings. How long has this been on, Adam?
AF All the time. But it’s probably not working.
RB Did we talk about anything?
AF We only talked about important things. (laughter)
Adam Fuss, Untitled, 1990, cibachrome.
RB Okay, come on, I’ll ask you more specific questions then.
AF That’s a wonderfully good holly tree. I love holly. It’s a very medieval, ancient tree, it’s full of poetry. And rhododendrons. You’d like England, these are all English plants. You can find a wood just of holly trees, or a forest of rhododendrons.
RB Were they planted at some point?
AF No, they’re indigenous. Actually, I think rhododendrons might have been introduced from the Himalayas.
RB But the cultivation of everything is not indigenous. The way things grow. Liquid Light.
AF Liquid Light?
RB You know what that is? I want to work with it.
AF Tell me what you want to do.
RB I don’t exactly know. I want to make drawings I can brush on. Photosensitive emulsion on canvas. I just want to do simple little things, very basic, elemental, iconographic, presences.
AF I got it. There’s a linen canvas that’s like photographic paper, it’s sensitive to light and you can buy it in rolls. Do you want to make paintings with light or …
RB I want to paint over light. You do that in your work. How important is that to you? What kind of light exists in your work?
AF This paper I was telling you about, there’s a whole world there. You can make emulsions that have a specific tonality. You can work with platinum. You can work with silver. You can tone with gold. I’m going to order a few sheets of linen for you.
RB Really? Adam, let’s talk about your work now. Okay?
AF Light. You asked me about light. Listen, Ross, light is a physical sensation. If you look at it with purely scientific eyes, it’s a particle that behaves like a wave or a wave that behaves like a particle. No one knows exactly what it is. It travels very fast. It has something to do with our perception of time, and I think when it’s reproduced or when one works with the idea of light, one’s working with a metaphor that’s endless, and huge and unspecific. Because you’re talking about something that’s almost just an idea, we can think about it but we can never grasp it. The light of the sun represents life on Earth. Light represents the fuel that is behind our very existence, and I don’t think any person can really be expected to be able to say what light is if you look at it in that way. It’s a mystery. It’s an unknowable value on one side and on the other there’s a disco light, and a one-hundred-and-eighty-six-thousand-miles-per-second light, and a light coming through a stained glass window, or the light in the desert when you don’t have any water.
RB From what I can see, you use it as a very visceral element in your work, as an absence and a presence in relation to an image. An absence and a presence which, a lot of the time, is as strong or stronger than the image.
AF Yes, but Ross, the light’s always present because it’s always photography. The inescapable physical manifestation of photography is light, a record of light. The table is wood, the photograph is light and so the subject is also light. I think you’re asking me what the subject is.
RB Your concentration in the work is on something that can loosely be described as phenomenology. And one of the things that fascinates me is how you’ve used this as a subject, what you’ve created through photography. I don’t see your perception of light that often, it has to do with spirituality. That’s really the question. I feel a sense of yearning in your work and I wonder if spirituality is what it’s relating to, or is it something else? You’ve talked to me about certain philosophies, I don’t know what relation they have to your work, or what you’re involved with outside of your work that informs it spiritually. I’m very curious.
AF (long pause)
RB You could talk into the tape recorder and I could leave the room. No, I’m kidding.
AF Don’t you have to go to the gym now?
RB No, I want to hear what you have to say first. It’s an easy question. Don’t you think? No.
AF Well, I think there is a lot of yearning.
RB What about the first one? The use of light in your photography as being something more than the image of light?
AF You could look at photography in many different ways, one being an alchemy where you’re working with two elements, light and silver. You work with oils. Photography’s exactly the same. One can make a painting which is bullshit and with the same material make something that’s genuine to one’s experience. I approach photography in the same way you approach painting, with the same ambition.
RB I understand that. I see similarities and obviously I relate very much to your work. I’m asking you the other questions because they’re questions that I think of, like the idea of yearning. It’s a dumb word, maybe.
AF It’s not a dumb word. It describes a feeling.
RB I see a description of a feeling in your work. The idea of transubstantiation.
AF Ross, then you see the work in the correct light. Then you see something which is essentially beyond work. This making of art is really just a shadow of the real yearning.
RB But could you define it?
AF The yearning?
RB For what? For whom? I’m curious to know what the expression under the expression is.
AF Well, let’s say the light. I work with light, and the light represents understanding. Understanding that doesn’t have an end to it. Not understanding of a problem, but being able to embrace with understanding.
RB Embrace what? I’m trying to be a little more definitive, in a sense.
AF I don’t think you can. I don’t think I can.
RB That’s okay. If you can’t, you can’t.
AF Light is a metaphor: where you have a dark place, and where that place becomes illuminated; where the darkness becomes visible and one can see. The darkness is me, my being. Why am I here? What am I here for? What is this experience I’m having? This is darkness. This is a question I ask, and when I ask it, it’s like looking into a black space. Light provides an understanding. Not physical light, but understanding of this question is like light. I have this dark space in me, and when I ask a question, that is a desire for light, and perhaps the light will come. I’ll be able to see something. Like the way I make photographs with a flash. You may see something for a flash …
RB You’re talking about an epiphany. No? You’re yearning for an epiphany. That’s what it sounds like, this kind of cosmic big bang.
AF That’s exactly it, Ross. That’s exactly what light is. It is a cosmic big bang, physically as well. The stuff that we’re subjected to here is actually coming from out there. It’s old. It’s been coming for millions and billions of years, and it’s coming from billions of miles away. It’s coming from the big universe. We don’t know what it is. We don’t know where it’s coming in. It’s not really of this world.
Adam Fuss, Untitled, 1990, cibachrome photograph, 24 × 20 inches.
RB You were going to talk about yearning. Maybe you could discuss it more in relation to yourself. What you’re saying is very broad. Where are you from?
AF I don’t know.
RB I mean, where are you from?
AF I don’t know. That’s the answer to your question.
RB What country do you come from? (Oh.) I like the way you don’t think literally. It’s very nice. You’re not a literal thinker although you deal with the mechanism of things.
AF I grew up in London, and in the English countryside in a small, medieval village.
RB Did the English countryside have any affect on you?
AF … and in Sydney, Australia on a beach, a suburban beach. Yes, the English countryside has had a tremendous affect on me. It’s the part of the world that I feel is my land, my backyard.
RB And you went to art school?
AF No. Did you?
AF (laughter) I made an application to go to a photography school, and at the interview, they said, “What are you interested in?” And I said, “Psychology.”
RB That’s what you were interested in, psychology?
AF Not specifically I was interested in the mind.
RB And you still are.
AF Of course.
RB And you are heterosexual? (laughter)
AF That’s none of your fucking business. Actually, I think it’s a legitimate question. Why are you asking?
RB I’m just curious.
RB I’m trying to get all the relevant social, cultural extenuating circumstances that might inform your image repertoire. The fact that you’re male, the fact that you’re English, the fact that you think this way or that way. I think these things all have an effect of some sort.
AF Absolutely, but do you think that if I say “yes,” to a question that it necessarily has to be true?
RB No. It’s not? I’m just curious as to what theatrical nuances you would put on the presentation of yourself as an artist.
AF Theatrical nuances?
RB How you construct yourself as an artist. It’s an invention. You’re inventing yourself as we’re talking, as you’re thinking, as you’re growing, and as you’re being an artist. Right? You revise it, you adjust it, you erase it.
AF It’s true but somehow there’s something which isn’t adjusted or changed or erased.
RB Which is what? This is what I’m interested to hear.
AF You look back in your life and you don’t know where the point is that you have become something, or where something has started. Let’s take this picture for instance. Perhaps you remember an experience …
RB I do.
AF … that you had when you were a child which has some relation to this image. Are you reproducing that experience of your childhood? I mean were you an artist then? Where does your fascination for life come from? Can you say exactly from what, from a specific experience that you had …
RB I’m getting in touch with the child within. (laughter)
AF I had a very strong experience with …
RB Just a joke.
AF Yeah, I know. It’s a great joke, Ross. We’re gonna play it back so you can hear it yourself.
RB Oh God, I’m getting silly. Go ahead, you had a what?
AF Look, light is incredibly beautiful. You have to be an asshole or blind not to appreciate light. I had an intense experience when I was eighteen. I had this mystical experience, where for a few moments, I lost my selfishness.
RB What kind of acid were you on?
AF No drugs, Ross. I just became … I lost my ego for a few seconds. I loved someone more than myself. My self disappeared for a short time.
RB You are such a romantic, Adam.
AF But listen, when I had this experience where I felt there was a light above me. You can say that a person has seen “the light.” In this moment I understood exactly what that phrase meant. I had seen “the light.”
RB That’s fantastic. Now, I want to ask you something. Are you looking for the kind of love that reconciles you with that original love that a child experiences? The love of reunification, of completeness, of being one with somebody else. Unconditional love.
AF No. In a big sense, yes. I mean, yes, reunification.
RB So have you found that at all?
AF Give me a break, will you?
RB Have you?
AF Ross, Ross, look, I don’t … have I found it? Sometimes. (laughter) I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I desire that reunification. I’m not sure I can define exactly what it is.
RB There’s no definition, I suppose.
AF The issue is not about another person.
RB What is it with?
AF It’s more about a rediscovery of the kind of energy that is untouched by human cultural experience.
RB My God. Is that possible?
AF Yeah. Look, if the energy that exists in the physical conception of life—when a new life is formed—is cosmic energy. This sounds terrible …
RB I understand what you’re saying.
AF My whole life is a record book, a memory machine of all the experiences that I’ve had. But beyond that, there’s also something which is mine. And perhaps that is this pure energy. If I can stop reacting and responding to the information that I’ve received in my thirty years of life, I can stop being Adam and can just be alive and feel that energy, then that is a reunion. That is THE reunion.
AF And I think sometimes in a relationship you can touch that because when you are in a relationship you throw everything away on some level.
RB Through love?
AF Not through love …
RB Through sex?
AF No, no, no, just through having this relation to another person. You connect to a part of yourself that’s basic, and pure, and selfless. I don’t know from my experience whether that’s something that can survive.
RB Sounds very intriguing.
AF But I do believe that I can have a relation to myself that can produce the same growth or light. It’s the yearning to touch what you are. To find what you are, and light facilitates that process.