The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
David Deutsch I hope these questions will lead to more interior responses than the ones I’m used to. I do not like talking about my work. There is something very uncomfortable about it for me.
Georgia Marsh Why is that?
DD I’m very uncomfortable with criticism and with flattery. I just want the work to be out there. I want it to be loved and I don’t want to hear about it. Someone will come up to me and say, “You know what I liked about your last show?” And I’ll cringe. You know the joke about the Jewish mother who buys two ties for her son. He comes over to dinner wearing one of the ties and she says, “So what was wrong with the other one?”
GM How do you work your way into a painting?
DD It’s mostly already there. The idea for the painting comes first and rather powerfully and then I end up working it out, trimming it, softening it here and there, bringing it out. But that’s not to say the original idea might not change radically and I’ll work it out from that point.
GM Where does the idea come from?
DD That’s the question I hardly ever confront.
GM Your paintings have basically two subjects, interiors and exteriors. You’re on the inside of something or the outside. Why these inside spaces?
DD Without answering directly, it’s something that has dropped into my lap and I have to deal with it. I feel it’s a given, a foregone conclusion. I’m dealing with that in the same way I’m painting with paint on canvas or ink on paper. I don’t really know why I feel obliged to work in what I see as a very challenging dichotomy.
GM Your landscapes can be very flat and frontal—like Right to Harvest, the central tree and the sky above it.
DD That landscape was one of the first I painted as if it were an interior. It was really no different to me than one of the earlier domes.
GM I felt that way about the long thin one with the very tight complex representation of clouds overhead. The rosy grey panorama.
DD Sky Eye. My approach to that painting is not as particularly notable or distinct as the previous painting you mentioned. The horizon line is very high. Maybe that’s why you thought it was more of an interior space.
GM The way the sky was represented. It was in such incredible detail that it felt like part of a dome.
DD Often, one thing that slips in and out of my consciousness is the experience I had when I was very young in Griffith Park Observatory which has a planetarium with its display of the solar system and the stars and constellations, projected onto a big dome by a Zeiss projector. Around the horizon, all the way around the 360 degrees, is a silhouette, a wooden cut-out of the topography surrounding the planetarium’s location. In Griffith Park it’s an approximation of the Los Angeles basin. The mountains are represented towards the east, and towards the west, the coast. Sometimes, I thought of Sky Eye as a painting on the surface of the planetarium dome. I suppose that’s true of every one of the curved landscapes.
GM Projection is one way of making an interior into an exterior, and vice versa.
DD There’s a kind of weak thread there, between depicting the planetarium and the curved paintings. I say weak because the connection has to be explained rather than immediately sensed by the viewer. I’m not interested in setting up a strict relationship of that kind. It has to come naturally and emotionally; it’s not my desire to perpetuate art that’s built on predisposed ideas about itself.
GM You have been involved with architecture. I’m interested in knowing why a painter, who usually deals with the relationship between flat space and illusion, would be interested in working with real space.
DD That’s a good point.
GM Building has a direct relationship to the way your thoughts work. You’ve often titled your paintings in reference to architecture, for instance The Architects, which has the names Le Corbusier and Mies written beneath a man standing, daydreaming in the sky. Something’s ticking in there.
DD Yes, I wish I could put my finger on it.
GM In your interior painting you are obviously interested in the architecture of the enclosure, and often there are references to what might lie outside. In Planetarium Cutaway, the walls of the dome are covered with landscape paintings and there is a projection of a landscape on a screen. At first it looks as though that might be the window to the outside world. It takes a while to focus on the tiny projector that turns the window into a screen
DD The paintings were put on the walls long after the original concept … the original concept of that painting was much cleaner and it ended up being debauched—the approach became too illustrative and that is ultimately not how I want a painting to resolve itself, although I am fond of that work.
GM Why did you depict paintings on the inside?
DD When I was working on the painting I felt it needed more detail, embellishment. I wanted it to be richer in some way. I didn’t feel I was through with it and I thought of those paintings. The fact that they bring landscapes, exteriors inside is not important to me.
GM It tends to be the history of art, inside that painting.
DD There are a lot of simultaneous references there. I think it is a muddled painting. I’m not trying to deprecate the painting, it was fun to paint and I just kept going at it. What you’re saying is very true. I mean it has all those allusions. But it didn’t have a master plan. The whole environment, the whole atmosphere of the painting is close to what I wanted, the big dark planetarium interior, a lot of things going on, history implied. American scientific history.
GM Scientific history?
DD Well, I’m very interested in … we are closing in on the end of the century and looking back on the 20th century as the greatest century of all time. It is an incredibly romantic notion to think about especially the first half of the century, the greatest strides were really in science and art and medicine not to mention war and political revolution. As an artist, I think it’s a particularly exciting time to look back and consider its spiritual implications.
GM Is that why you’ve taken on the aura of the 19th-century landscape and dropped the image of the avant-garde?
DD No. I never took on the aura of the 19th-century landscape consciously. My work is described that way and rightly so …
GM You seem to be using ideas that are pre-20th-century avant-garde.
DD Maybe that’s accurate.
GM You seem to be using that as a device, in the same way you use a projector or a tape recorder, as a motif.
DD We had no choice. When I say avant-garde, revolutionary to sexual … everything that was touted as the art of the future died in its tracks sometime perhaps in the ’70s. What else could you do but try and recapture? One had plenty of motivation and inspiration to work and wanted to use the most direct means available and that was drawing and painting.
DD Depiction. At that time I used mostly pencil and ink and depicted people with cameras and tape recorders in outdoor situations because it seemed less confining. I painted scenes of people making videotapes and films outside, in the woods, which some said was odd. And that led to all those devices I used. I suppose it’s a little trademark of mine, to make a landscape and put a contraption of some sort in a painting. Now I can talk about something that ties this together a bit. In the mid to late ’70s, two scientists working for Bell Laboratories set up a huge plywood device in the foothills of New Jersey. I was immediately attracted to the plywood because I use the material so much. It was a sonic listening device for the purpose of measuring the expansion of the universe. These two scientists were attempting to prove through calculated measurement the theory of the Big Bang. And they succeeded. They shared a Nobel Prize. There were pictures of them in this contraption sitting around listening, working the various controls and making measurements and so on. I made about three or four paintings based on that in a very loose way. I titled two of them, Bell Labs I and II. They were made in ’78 or ’79; big landscapes with two figures and a kind of contraption in the background. All my work now has that work embodied in it, and I keep referring back to them because it was that spirit of the 20th century; science and investigation and exploration of universes. Maybe the way I depicted it throws it back to a 19th-century romantic dream.
GM What do you mean?
DD Well, if I were to try and depict it in a more contemporary mode, it would have to be reduced to numbers and computer readouts and digits. We’re in an era of software and I’m an artist and still using tried and true traditional …
GM You’re trying to make images into emotions?
DD Well, obviously I’m trying to make room for my emotions, and those feelings, I hope, are human and that’s the only way I can depict it.
GM The human beings in your paintings seem to be half-dead. They are all lying around prone and exhausted, involved in distancing or observing activities like watching and listening. There is a non-event to the whole thing. The human beings are being subjected or they are subjecting something; i.e., the earth or the universe to the personal, the inactive, the catatonic.
DD They are not asleep and they are not dead, as people have said. They’re resonating with whatever is the spirit of science and of the night …
GM The spirit of science is a somnambulist?
DD I wouldn’t say that. It’s certainly a kind of concentration, a particular kind of intelligence or consciousness. If I’m depicting figures associated with measuring devices they have to resonate in conjunction with that machinery and whatever its purpose is …
Editor All the machinery in your paintings record or measure information. Does this have to do with memory, in the Proustian sense?
DD Yes, but that’s very general. I could also say that it projects an impression of the future. I like the simultaneous meaning.
GM I read something recently about how obsessions protect people, immunize them against distraction.
DD I think that someone who you think of as obsessive is probably a bit antisocial and tends to filter out painful experience. There is a peacefulness in obsession. Taken to the extreme it’s probably a real sickness. I don’t know what more there is to add to this. We just went over something that’s so important to me I feel we just barely got into it. I’m glad you’re referring to those paintings as sleeping or being possessed or controlled by their situation … One thing I was attempting to do was not make a narrative statement. There is no discourse, no before and after in them. I think that’s a good thing in art. The sequential narrative is a lesser experience. It becomes more of an illustration and a limitation.
GM There don’t seem to be any events in the paintings, either narrative or pictorial. There are no variants for the pleasure of variety, the pleasure in the painting comes from the repetition, the routine, the obsessive quality.
DD In my work of the late ’70s there was more action. The ink paintings had to do with figures working machines but after that the figures were no longer connected directly with an action. They are either sitting or lying in front of similar kinds of machinery. This separates them more, makes them more important.
GM What makes an experience lasting in painting?
DD When we look back at history the paintings that are more powerfully narrative, that depict action, even successful paintings that depict a topical event … I suddenly think of Goya’s execution painting, okay, here’s a better example, The Oath of the Horatii by David at the Louvre. A great painting. David’s a great example because he was a topical artist. This painting has three figures taking an oath in a very statuesque, heroic, classical composition angles, line, direction. Basically it’s a very static painting, and even though it’s a portrayal, the ultimate meaning is purely formal.
GM The formalism of the painting depicts a certain world view.
DD I don’t know what you mean by world view.
GM An attitude about his century, in that particular painting, a changing political attitude.
DD Yes, but you wouldn’t know that to see it now, I mean, that’s really irrelevant.
GM Why on earth would someone in the 18th century paint classical Greek military stories if it wasn’t to represent something in their own time that they didn’t really want to put their finger on?
DD Exactly. You put it much better than I. I think more specifically, we were talking about moving figures away from the action, removing them from the topical or narrative. Oath of Horatii is an example. On the other hand, perhaps the painting The Raft of the Medusa is a lesser experience because it was more news than art.
GM I’ve been rereading a book called The Shape of Time. You might remember it from way back when. George Kubler writes about the life of forms and how some forms can be reactivated or lie dormant for centuries and then become reactivated in another form, class, or category in another place. I thought of your use of landscape in that sense. That you might be reviving or borrowing a dormant tradition.
DD Right, well …
GM The space in the interior paintings can be claustrophobic or xenophobic depending on your point of view.
DD To me a subtle thing like changing the depth of field opens up a whole territory, a whole new approach to putting some of these elements back into my work. I see everything as a working, practical problem of technique.
GM That dynamic change in depth of field can add or subtract worlds into paintings. There are spaces that open up in between that become either vistas or places where a whole city or a civilization could be tucked inside. Or you can concentrate your depth of field and make something as frontal as that Right to Harvest painting, suddenly you split it in those long thin ones and it becomes an infinity focus.
DD Yeah, we’re talking now. With that insight I could stretch five or ten different curves of different sizes. You touched on ideas there which could produce five or ten paintings.
GM The interstice between the cultural and the mechanical means the space between a representation of an image and an abstraction can be the location of a world view. If I’m not mistaken, your images come from memory.
DD Yes, they tend to. But I’m not conscious of the idea of maneuvering in that subtle spatial area. I feel, though, that when you mention the expression “depth of field,” that’s a key.
GM You don’t use photography in your paintings.
DD No, I don’t. I might refer to a photograph of a particular kind of tree. I mean, I never paint from a picture, I don’t copy a tree …
GM A 20th century landscape painter cannot avoid what photography has done to landscape.
DD You see, I don’t really think of myself as a landscape painter, although I won’t deny it. But I don’t really take that seriously, you know.
GM All the same, the devices in your paintings refer to registration by optical, mechanical means, i.e., the single lens. Whether it’s the lens of the telescope, the lens of the camera or the fisheye effect you use in some of the paintings, it’s observation through the lens.
DD I love that interpretation of my work even though it’s too literal. But that is something that has to come out. Work that shows its predisposition shows too much of an idea, intentionality, sets itself up as a solution to a problem of some sort is not interesting to me.
I really enjoy watching home movies and home slides, even of perfect strangers. I like seeing other people’s experiences in a city somewhere, or a picture of them outside of a restaurant they ate at and I would further want to know what it was like eating there, what they had, etc.
GM And yet your paintings obscure that connection. There is no subjective knowledge that the viewer can get from your figures. You’re wiping that out.
DD I make a distinction between those two experiences. It is difficult to make a bridge between my interest in somebody’s mundane little picture of someplace they stayed in, in the south of France, for instance, which I want to know all about, and yet I’ll make a painting with a figure in it. I won’t describe its purpose there. That’s not important.
GM You want to observe them but you don’t want them to observe you.
DD Well, I don’t think it’s that. In The Studio by Courbet, he added figures slowly and they’re standing all over the place. That painting isn’t necessarily about those people. What makes that painting great, if you read it as great, is the whole scope of it; the atmosphere, the mood, the space behind the people. There’s a painting of a painting on the wall, I suppose I was thinking about that a little.
GM Like your dome painting, that has paintings of paintings in it.
DD Maybe I’m trying to imitate that experience. I always loved The Studio.
GM Certainly you made a reference to it in the Planetarium Cutaway. Although the painter’s easel has been replaced by the slide projector.
DD This is the first time I’ve ever made this connection. But there certainly is one. It doesn’t matter what kind of interpretation is made out of it. You know, I just don’t believe in the avant-garde. There’s a glut of work around, but I like the glut. Everybody’s doing everything. I like seeing all the work around, but it’s preposterous for someone to make a claim about doing something new in painting today. It’s simply not happening. But it’s liberating to be working now as compared to a few years back.
DD Because people are just doing what they want. Anything’s okay.
GM You don’t feel dominated by the need to …
DD No. Show me a critic out there writing about avant-garde art today and I’ll show you a diluted pseudo-intellect. (laughter) All I want to say is I don’t want to talk about breaking ground or about thinking of landscape painting because it is avant-garde or because it is so regressive and conservative. I don’t think it’s a good time to think about that, I’m thinking about other things we’ve tried to touch on, but they’re not easy to grasp …
GM When we talked about your paintings, historically you were referring to how they went from being sculpture to film to drawings to drawings of film. We also mentioned then it was an era of change not just for you personally but in general. What appeared to happen in the ’60s and ’70s a splitting apart of disciplines, an atomization of disciplines from performance to film from one medium to another. Do you now feel that those disciplines have taken their shapes again, that they belong to themselves once more?
DD Yeah, I feel very strongly after going through that and being influenced by many of those artists, that drawing becomes drawing and painting becomes painting and there was something spectacular …
GM And a man is a man and a woman a woman. Sounds like a definition of conservatism. (laughter)
DD Well, it sounds like a very conservative idea.
GM Do you think conservatism is adequate to address the issues?
DD Well, I don’t think that … I guess, I think there’s something basically physiological about the relationship of a painting to a viewer, a certain scale. It’s a two-dimensional surface. It can only be so big or so small and it’s flat. There’s a fundamental relationship there, and also to a three-dimensional object, also to sitting down to a film that has a beginning and an end. Is that a conservative idea? May I put it like this: I think most artists realize that the challenge of “consolidation,” with respect to your reference to disciplines having taken shape, holds in it the potential for the highest reward. The other was important to go through. I remember seeing films early on by Michael Snow that really changed my mind about filmmaking.
GM A lonely man on a mountain listening to the noise of the universe—sounds right up your alley.
DD Exactly. The film, La Region Centrale. You know, it’s hard to imagine, it was just a film, you sat down and watched it. But you knew at the same time how it was made because it spun around the landscape, turned upside-down. To look at it now it might be a little out of place, a little too monotonous for our tastes. But really, I think he made a masterpiece there. Looking at his films, I wanted to make pure film. Looking at other painters around I wanted to make paintings.
GM You made paintings about film.
DD So I made paintings about film, yeah.
GM And films about painting.
DD And films about painting. The consolidation was a powerful influence on me. If you look around today, I think it was a powerful influence on everybody. Everybody today is painting or making films or making sculpture.
GM Do you think that painting can address every issue you’re interested in?
DD I think that painting can address every issue I’m interested in, yes. Movies, films can serve other people very well. But I don’t imagine that I’ll ever really like to walk into a room and see a painting and a film shown together and somehow be asked to incorporate the two into one experience. I don’t buy it. Gilbert and George’s drawings at Sonnabend profoundly impressed me. My work took a great deal, to be perfectly honest, from their early drawings. Now, everybody’s close to everybody. There isn’t that concern about authorship that there was. If you were working and you were close to somebody in those days, it was an issue, a crisis of authorship.
GM The Anxiety of Influence?
DD The anxiety of influence.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.