I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Christian Haub’s Floats are plexiglass constructions that are looked through as well as at. The artist discusses the place these works have in his long, underrated career.
When I published my second book, Beyond Piety, in 1996, one of the reviewers complained that my first collection, Immanence and Contradiction (1986), had dealt with major artists like Robert Ryman, Robert Morris, and Brice Marden but my second was full of essays about lesser known people like Christian Haub and Mary Boochever. Both my decision and the complaint spoke for themselves. I think the artists about whom I’m enthusiastic should be better known, and that critics ought not confine themselves to what galleries and art historians determine to be major. This interview has been conducted on the occasion of a show of Haub’s Floats, bas-relief works he makes at the same time as his paintings, which I think they both inform and supplement. We conducted the interview by email as we’re on separate coasts, and addressed the particulars of his work and how he sees things in general.
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe Chris, we’ve known one another since the ’70s, when I taught at Princeton and you and Tiffany Bell and Hal Foster and a couple of other art world illuminati were students there. I’ve written about your work a couple of times, and included you in at least two shows I’ve curated. In an interview with Bonnie Clearwater I described you as the most absurdly overlooked artist in my lifetime, and should like to use this interview to get you to say a couple of things about how you see yourself and how you make your work. With that in mind I wonder if we could begin with a question about whether you think your work has any particular relationship to the current state of things in general.
Christian Haub Jeremy, I think it would be accurate to say that we’ve had a nearly 40-year conversation going through our paintings and around painting.
I can remember Chris Wool visiting the studio in about 1980 and telling me that no one our generation was making paintings like mine. I thought that was a good thing, but there was really not much I could do about it anyway. I started painting seriously in 1974, so by 1980 I was still very excited by the kinds of abstraction I had only just discovered: ’60s Mangold, Ryman, Stella, Marden, Newman, and the whole village of NYC artists coming out of that. The last thing I wanted to do was make Bad Painting. When I moved to New York in January 1978 my first loft mate was Hal Foster, so I was quickly aware that other things were happening. But, I was interested in painting, and the other directions were just something else. I was much more interested in what was going on in music. If you didn’t need to look at a work for a long time, even if that meant multiple viewings over time, I didn’t see the point. I still don’t. “See something once, why see it again” didn’t interest me then or now. I was told at the time that no one was reading Merleau-Ponty anymore. And that abstraction was played out. Well, I hadn’t finished reading Merleau-Ponty yet, and abstract painting looked far from understood or finished to me. Young artists don’t like being told what not to do or read. I notice that some of those writers are now explaining Ryman, Flavin, and Stella to us.
I think that art should be artist driven. When the work is market driven, as it so often is now, you get a kind of over production that, if you’re, say, the Beatles in Hamburg, can be a good thing, but it’s usually a bad thing. I can remember meeting film people in Prague in 1994 who were worried that the looming influx of money was going to ruin Czech cinema. The artists never spoke about selling, only about doing. I’m sure that there is great work being made there today, but I’m also sure that it’s having a tough time being shown. I am surprised at the readiness of artists to collaborate with the speculators. We’re in a period in art that reminds me of the Stadium Rock of the ’70s. No one can see 300 booths of art in an afternoon. That’s about something else. It’s time to post suggested viewing times. David Foster Wallace once wrote a piece on tennis in which he observed that the greater tennis audience had no idea just how good an athlete the average player had to be. I think that the art audience is like that. There are hundreds of interesting artists flying under the radar or under the noses of an audience that is focused on the few. It reminds me of Paris in the 1800s. There’s too much Official Art around. We were being told that abstraction was mainstream after 15 years, but we’ve had 30 years of the Andy Academy. And I’m a fan. And, while most of the interesting abstract painting these days is being done by women, abstraction is still supposed to be a boy’s club. Any list would have to include Charline von Heyl, Leslie Wayne, Katharina Grosse, Li Trincere, and Nancy Haynes. I’ve followed Eve Aschheim and Mary Schiliro for a long time, and you’ve recently introduced me to the work of Rebecca Norton. I hate to cut short what should be a long list.
JGR John Baldessari told me that Georg Baselitz recently said that there are no great women painters at the moment. Apart for implying that there are great men painters, the remark demonstrates what we already knew, people like him don’t bother to look beyond a very narrow field any more. They don’t know what’s actually happening is my sense of it. But, turning now to what you do, could you say something about the relationship between the works in this show, which are all Plexiglas pieces with no paint on them, and the paintings you make that use paint? When did you make the first plexi piece?
CH For the sake of simplicity I’ll refer to the cast acrylic sheet that I use as “plexi.” I use different brands: Plexiglas, ACRYLITE, Chemcast, etc. I’ve been making the plexi Floats since 1990. When I paint I try to make the paintings as vivid and full of light as the plexi pieces. Plexi achieves its luminosity effortlessly.
Until recently, I had almost never made a painting on white gesso. In the mid ’80s I was making oil paintings that were underpainted with either red or green and then painted over with black and white. It was a response to the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio. One day I was in Canal Plastics and I saw precut red and green squares of acrylic, so I took some home. The first time that paint hit the plastic surface it exploded. Soon afterward, I did a show at Anne Plumb’s gallery of what turned out to be my last oil paintings (of, as I think of it, linseed oil on linen) and of my first paintings using acrylic on acrylic.
It wasn’t long before the plexi panels that I was painting on began to look worth doing in themselves, without paint. I stopped using paint from one day to the next for about two years and began making the Floats, first showing them in LA in the show you curated, nonrePRESENTation, and then with Anne Plumb in 1990. By 1992 I was painting again, but the paintings came directly out of my experience with the Floats, which are always rectilinear. The arcs and curves I had previously used in paintings disappeared. There hasn’t been a curve since.
I can’t call the Floats paintings because I don’t use paint, but they hang on the wall and come from painting, I think they could be called “shallow reliefs.” When my wife, Vera Miljkovic, photographs them she has the problem of where to focus. There is the physical surface of the plastic, and then there is the colored light cast behind it on the wall. As you once pointed out, you look both at and through the works.
I see the works as like fresco and watercolor—color cast onto and illuminated by the ground. I also think a lot about Matisse’s paper cutouts. My plexi is a sheet of cast acrylic, which, starting out as a liquid, is then cut into pieces and bonded together. I am free to move the parts around as much as I like before fixing them, like collage. Matisse’s final work, the Rosace, was a paper cutout and maquette for a stained glass window.
JGR Could you say something about how you work and why you use the materials you use?
CH My painting process is additive. I’ve never erased paint. In a painting even when you cover up something you’ve done, it’s still there. I like that. But I also like that with the Floats it’s the opposite, erasing is easy and very much a part of the process.
I like the idea of Whistler erasing the previous day’s work before beginning again. Making the Floats is like that. I make small, unfixed, versions, trying different things out, repeating and starting over again, until things look right. I then shoot a digital image of the possibility and carry it around on my phone or camera like a sketchbook. When it’s time to turn the small version into a large piece, I rehearse it. It’s a last chance to change or adjust the study before execution.
JGR Would you care to elaborate on the effect working on the plexi pieces has had on your other work?
CH As I mentioned before, the rectilinearity of my painting comes from the Floats. In 1993 I was running a gallery called TennisportArts, in Long Island City, and I had a studio there. I had never not lived in my studio, and so I began to make works that could be carried back and forth between my new and old studios. This led somehow to nearly 20 years of “small” paintings. The paintings were on wood and MDF, with colored masking tape used to plan the work. Just like the plexi elements in the Floats, this made it possible to move the parts around until things looked right, at which point the colored tape would be replaced by paint, with adjustments. It is surprising to me how often the paintings have been described as made of tape when there has never actually been tape in a completed work.
I use a very limited range of colors. I try to get as much color out of as few colors as possible. Like using just a few guitar chords or 12 tones, it doesn’t feel limited. There’s a diptych in the show at Kathryn Markel called Keith Moon Float. There are four horizontal red bands, a pair in the blue upper panel, and another in the lower clear panel. The reds were cut from the same sheet of acrylic, but the ones on the upper panel look like cadmium red light, while the ones below look like cadmium red deep. The work is about things like that.
Moving the tape is much like moving strips of plexi for the Floats. The tape is a physical thing in your hands, and it becomes a space once it’s in or on the work. I’m fascinated by that and use acrylic sheet because it behaves like paint. It can be opaque, translucent, or transparent like a glaze. I rarely mix paint. With plexi all kinds of mixing happens when the cast shadows cross, resulting in colors I would never mix.
I don’t paint diagonals, but the Floats cast diagonal shadows. The Floats change as the ambient light changes, as do paintings. I control the lights during exhibitions, but after that it’s out of my hands. And then there’s that way that fluorescent plexi glows, looking like one hue on its edge and another through its face. People often mention Flavin, but I think more about Rothko and Bellini.
JGR In a way you’ve already addressed my next question, by mentioning Caravaggio and Bellini. I want to ask, given that you’ve spent a lot of time in Europe and are comfortable there, you speak most European languages—French, German, Italian, and Spanish and you’ve probably learned Serbo-Croat since getting together with Vera—whether you think your experience of European art has had an impact on how you think about art in America? In particular, I wonder whether being in Italy as a Prix de Rome Fellow in 1984 made an especially big impression on you. But I am also thinking of your relationship with France, where you have relatives and which you’ve visited fairly regularly all your life.
CH In my experience Europeans are more open to possibilities. If British musicians could mine the Blues, or if jazz is very much alive in Europe, they see no reason why Mondrian or Newman or Stella or Manet shouldn’t be important to an artist today. But they expect you to bring something else to the conversation. The “average” person in Europe doesn’t beg off by saying that he or she doesn’t know about art. They do know at least something, and they believe that art is important. They understand that it is play, and that play is important. In Europe artists are taken seriously as citizens and as contributors to society and culture. I was in Prague in 1994 when President Clinton visited. He was met by a panel of politicians, scientists, and artists. I can’t imagine that happening here. The artists in Europe whom I’ve met talk about art, politics, ideas, and food. I’ve never had a conversation about money or collectors in Europe. Artists and people around art in Europe will look at abstract painting. There is room for it. They don’t think they know what it is before they’ve seen it. They believe that it’s possible to make abstract work and that doing so doesn’t automatically make you a conservative.
On the other hand, there is a deference to things American that can get in the way. Europeans, the French in particular, can be very conservative. You hear “you must” a lot. The walls are already full of ancestors. You see lots of work that lets American art point the way. Accepted styles. But, of course, you don’t need to pay attention to that.
I’d like to add that I’ve also spent lots of time in Guatemala, and it’s where I got my first exposure to European painting in the studio of my aunt who was a serious portrait painter. I remember her copying Old Masters and painting her sitters, who often wore amazing Mayan textiles.
JGR You seem to have just said that in America you can be accused of conservatism if you make an abstract painting, but that Europeans (and especially, apparently, the French) can be conservative in other ways. Do you think that has to do with the ancestors being so present?
CH Yes, the ancestors are very present in France. Most of the walls are already full, but there are new walls being built. I often stay in Burgundy where I can drive through the vineyards and end up parking next to Richard Serra’s Octagon for Saint Eloi to visit a Sol LeWitt show at Pietro Spartà’s gallery. Le Consortium is half an hour away in Dijon. The local population prefers the Romanesque churches in the fields, but there is room for the LeWitts. In 2010 I visited a marble quarry there with Alain Kirili and saw François Rude’s Napoleon Rising to Immortality the same week. So, serious present and past manage to coexist among the vines. We also stay in Vence where Matisse’s chapel looks like it was built yesterday.
In 1983 and 1984 I spent a year and a half painting and looking at art in Rome and all over Italy. There was art everywhere you turned. I grew up in Miami in the ’50s and ’60s. We didn’t have that, but we did have California culture, shipped in. There were steel wheel skateboards that didn’t work, candy colors, t-shirts, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. In Italy I immediately went for the color. It didn’t seem so far from California, somehow. I think you can see some of the differences between America and Europe in their different attitudes to Warhol. Warhol is an important artist in Europe, but sometimes, in France, he feels to me important in the way that Jerry Lewis is important there, a question of translation. I like the best of Andy, how could you not? I also liked it when he corrected Benjamin Buchloh on the topic of the end of painting by telling him that he liked Albers. There’s a lot of dismissiveness toward “art for art’s sake” in America, but I’ve always found that a problem with Warhol and his followers is that there are too many inside jokes. The Oxidation series, which I saw in the studio when they were being made, were described by Warhol to Bob Colacello as a parody of Pollock. I think Andy was marking territory in abstraction. He pointed out that afternoon that you could tell which of the Piss Paintings had been made by men and which had been made by women. I also hate it when painters want you to understand that they know better. They’re not really into brushes and paint and stuff. Warhol said that art was business, but he never said that was only business. In Europe they got that.
JGR What do you mean by being into “brushes and stuff,” and if not Flavin what about Albers and also Frank Stella when it comes to thinking about your use of color in these works and in general, for that matter?
CH I am very interested in Flavin, particularly in relation to Matisse. What I meant earlier was that people often, when they see the way I use the glow of fluorescent plexi, think Flavin and go no further. They do the same thing with Mondrian when looking at my painting. I will travel far to see a Flavin show. I just traded Tiffany Bell for her Flavin catalog.
I’ve looked a lot at Albers, more lately, but I don’t really know what to say about that. There is an obvious relationship, but I’ve looked more at other artists. Juan Gris, for example. One of the things I like about Gris is his “simple” palette. I’ve learned a lot from his paintings, but more importantly from Cezanne’s, and from Manet’s Last Flower paintings. Small, complex, and powerful works.
Stella has had a big impact on my work. I like the lack of fussiness, the systematic yet intuitive use of color, the sheer explosiveness of his output. I’m not someone who thinks that Frank did his best work at 23. I love the Black Paintings, and the works immediately preceding them, but I’ve been excited by almost every series he’s done. It’s great that he went back into the Concentric Squares more than a decade after the first ones. I can’t find many artists who share my enthusiasm, but I also can’t find many artists who know as much about painting as Frank, or who take the chances he does. I also like that he is still going into debt to make his work, just like a young artist, or even … us. I can’t, however, seem to find much way to use him in my work now, not consciously anyway. It was particularly exciting as a young painter to find out that Stella had voted me into my year in Rome and everything that went with it. A life changing experience.
By “the brushes and stuff” I meant the artists who make paintings, but want us to understand that they know better than to be just painting. They are using painting to do other things, and brushes, techniques, etcetera don’t interest them. I’m not someone who wants to talk about grinding paint or to trade medium recipes, but I see no reason to be defensive about something as exciting and difficult as making paintings.
A change in material will lead to changes in the work. A couple of years ago, when my paintings got bigger again and I stretched my first linen in over 20 years, I saw the point of stretchers again. Putting on a white ground has led to a new group of works and ideas; it has been exciting to see the cloth move with the brush after all the work on panels. I look forward to making oil paintings again. Something else will happen.
Even with familiar materials, you can start out making one work but end up making something unexpected, much like improvised music.
JGR Lastly, we’ve both known Bob Ryman for years and I’ve always thought that you use materials in a way that owes something to him but is also its opposite. I don’t mean that your work is to be thought of as not-Ryman in any simple or oppositional sense, but rather you do all kinds of things with the aspect of painting that has to do with it being an object whose morphology includes a surface and support relationship of a sort that is part of the affective communicability of the work as a whole that Ryman wouldn’t—beginning, to be sure, with what you do with color. That returns me to the question that I intend to be my last. When you talk about your painting being “about” what color can do, what do you mean? You mentioned women who are doing things with abstraction that people should be looking at, and those include people who are using abstraction but with a clear view of a kind of content. And most abstract painters have some sort of content or bunch of associations that gets things going. Ryman wanting to “see painting naked,” is just one version of that. Other people have ideas about the affine or battles or complex ideas not too far from their sources in Theosophy, and yet others find a starting point in quite specific thoughts about art history, and therefore about content over which one might suppose they can, therefore, have little conceptual control. I take it for granted that all uses of color involve the body, involuntary sensation being where color starts. So allowing for these generalities, is there something specific about your use of painting that we might as well know, and which motivates your choices of color or your attraction to some rather than others?
CH I’ve been using the same small group of colors for about 20 years. Plexi comes in more than 500 colors, and you can order others, but there are only a dozen or so readily available. Just prior to the Floats in 1990, I was working in oil and alkyd, mixing lots of color, but when I went back to painting, after working only the plexi pieces, I had discovered the unlimited endless potential of limits. Isaac Guillory, an amazing guitarist from Newcastle, England, could do anything with a guitar, but he told me that one of the periods when he learned the most had been when he’d broken his wrist and been forced to convalesce playing bass in a reggae band. The temporary limitation forced him to slow down and understand things that, in his virtuosity, he had missed. Ryman has made me pay attention to everything. Brice Marden once said that he thinks of Bob as our Vermeer. I think of him as our Matisse. Stella got me to stretch, and Ryman got me to slow down.
The show at Kathryn Markel came together in a flash. I am all for speed. When I referred to my painting being about what color can do, I used Keith Moon Float as an example. Keith reinvented drumming. He was certainly into speed, and he thought through his body. His Float is a diptych, 57” high, but like him, much bigger in feel. The two pairs of reds look very different, and you can’t not see it. There is nothing tricky about it, but it’s simple and complicated at the same time. You see it and you feel it. It slows you down and gets you to look at everything else more closely. But that’s only part of the picture. There’s one way that color, like smell, can take you elsewhere. You use it, and then you step back and try to see what happened.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee