Photograph by Amanda Means.
Gary Stephan picks me up at the bus stop in a hot red sportscar and winds slowly down the road of an unremarkable little town in upstate NY, waving careful greetings to the passing police cars. Somewhere, by the side of the road, across from a white frame house, we enter his unpresuming studio to talk. A wall of glass opens out onto a field. Nowhere really, or anywhere. At first glance the studio looks as though it has been emptied out for a show, but then I see that the baseboard is lined with small paintings of every proportion. They look like laboratory notes, thick with ideas. After the interview, a nice lunch, and a hike, I go back to the studio alone. Through the window I watch the blackening edge of the hills vibrating against the acid yellow sky of the crepuscule. Down at the bottom of the facing wall, the small eye of a painting begins to glow in the falling light.
Georgia Marsh Gary, you’ve done a lot of talking about these paintings already. Does that sort of theatricalization of your thought process affect the paintings as you are doing them?
Gary Stephan I don’t know. I don’t think it has. It’s not like there is a script. The script is all pretty much after the fact, way after I make the paintings. I don’t enter into them with much at stake or hoping for much to happen. I’m not trying to illustrate and there is not much intention.
GM We tend to form thoughts as we speak, in the same way that we tend to make paintings as we paint. You’ve spoken so much about these paintings in various interviews and articles over the last year and a half, doesn’t that affect your way of thinking about them?
GS I just don’t think it is true. It’s true in this sense: I think I am polishing a script that runs along next to the paintings. But I am not at all confident that the script bears any real deep text relationship to the pictures. The last thing I would do if I wanted to know about a Picasso is to talk to Pablo. It is a parallel experience but it is not really one-to-one. It probably helps develop a certain tonality about how a person looks at the world, but I wouldn’t look at it to explain the pictures the way maybe Montebello does.
GM We all plant the seeds of our issues in the various statements that we make. Yours seem to be strewn with a collection of personal metaphors …
GS Very long years ago, I realized that I had an enormous amount of things on my mind that I wanted to paint with. I started out, as it were, to try to do what your first question seemed to suggest—to actually illustrate or make a picture of what was on my mind. I found it to be a non-productive way to do things. Now I really let those things go about their business. The proof that they are valuable is that, after the fact, the paintings do resonate with things that have been on my mind, but it is not the other way around.
I’ve been having this on my mind. Years and years ago, I did these paintings that were like little Greek eyes, (really simply, like those on the vases,) painted on the ends of sticks. They were like cubist constructions with little blue eyes painted on them—really wonderful. I never thought about them again, until two years ago now, I had eye surgery. I never thought, “Oh, now I have to make a painting about my eye surgery.” In fact, even last year when somebody, referred to a current painting saying, “Oh, these look like pince nez, those kind of clip on glasses.” I thought, well, maybe they do and maybe they don’t.
GM Like that metaphor that Robert Pincus-Witten used, “The spectacle of spectacles.”
GS Exactly. And I thought, “Oh, I get it, okay, maybe so.” It didn’t even occur then to me, until I actually listened. Then I thought: this is true, this is a painting about my eye surgery. No question in my mind, that is what it is.
GM Why make it autobiographical?
GS It just turned out that in this case I think it really was, on one level.
Horsleye, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 11 × 14 inches.
GM There is a difference between using contextually gained experience and expressing oneself. These don’t look like very expressive paintings.
GS That’s true. They are not personally expressive. They sort of just go about their business. After the fact, I want to see how they work or what they mean.
GM I have noticed in various texts and interviews that you’ve done that you seem particularly interested in “truth” and “meaning.” Those are words you’ve often used and yet you say that you want your paintings to just go about their business …
GS Exactly, for that reason. It occurred to me early on that I had a choice of either illustrating my desires, how I wished things were, in which case, I wouldn’t so much know the truth as that the paintings would be self-fulfilling prophecies. They would simply gratify and enshrine my prejudices. The only way I knew to get around that so that maybe I could actually discover something in the pictures and so that they would have a veracity, would be to have the project of the pictures be fairly open.
GM What do you mean by “the project of the pictures”?
GS I’ve thought of analogies to this. For example, the way scientists work with a petri dish. They put down something called agar, which is a nutrient bath that has been sterilized. There is nothing alive in it. It’s just food. A completely neutral experience, as it were. If they put down a dish that has nothing in it, obviously, nothing would grow. So in a sense, to get something to grow; to believe that there is something out there to grow, in this case the metaphor is truth, you have to go half way. You have to at least provide the occasion for truth to evidence itself. So what you do is you slightly property the situation. You present the potential nutrient. You don’t presume there are no bacteria and you don’t presume there are bacteria. You simply act in good faith and provide the occasion. That’s the way the paintings are constructed. The devices, the templates, the scenes, are a normative vocabulary, like the food. They are the normal diet of meaning. If it is going to mean something, the meaning will come out in the way in which it gets put together. But I don’t start out thinking, “Boy, this means a lot, let’s really get in there and prove it.” I just put this stuff out and then hope for the best.
GM One of the striking characteristics of these new paintings is the appearance of two very highly determined devices. One is the appearance of shapes taken from templates and the other is the illusion of deep atmospheric space from the 16th century. Why do you paste those two things together? Is that the structure, the agar?
GS The templates on the landscapes?
GS In previous paintings there were “template-like” things in that the forms were about as interesting as these templates. There were these kind of fundamental forms: cubes, cones, and rods. What I had realized with those shapes was that there was a whole group of people who saw those, not as hollow occasions or devices, in the sense of Morandi’s bottles, as I had thought of them; but as ideal, charged forms. I thought that the paintings were being misread. Back in the early ’80s, the paintings had been on graded grounds or historically associative grounds—a light blue ground, or grounds that were dark at the top and light at the bottom—which I understood to be sufficient to see them as associative spaces. No one saw that, or very few people saw them that way. At one point they were like El Greco’s but no one thought that they were from historical sources. My reason for sublimating this historical material and the associative spaces was the thinking, which I guess I’ve given up on, that I took from Cézanne—that pictures are better if they are slower—that they release their significance over time. And that if you lived with a painting for a very long time, it would endure. Only after you’ve been with the painting for a year or so would you say, “My God, that’s like a real solid object floating in a space.” At first, maybe you wouldn’t know that it’s a very concrete proposal. One of the things that so distressed me was that the paintings were being seen as relatively conventional, along the line of late abstraction. I’ve always seen them as more eccentric than that. So I simply beat people over the head with the sources now. The gloves are off. It was, at first, kind of disillusioning to me. I thought, “I’ve given up on my hopes of having it insinuate itself.” Now they are very overt. But that’s the breaks. Better I do it this way than I live on regretting that nobody’s getting these pictures. At least this way, in some sense, they’re getting them.
GM How do you feel about living with this forme pregnante that carries all the significance of the picture?
GS Well, I’d be perfectly willing to dump all these forms if in a year or so if everybody thought they were a big deal. I would definitely do something else then, take a different shape, do other things. The reason I think these shapes are interesting right now is that about half the people who see them think they are a joke—don’t mean anything, and the other half think they are a big deal. So as long as I get about 50/50 like that …
GM What’s the joke?
GS Well, the joke is that they sort of look like telephones, Mickey Mouse ears, eye glasses, eyeballs. They look like bras. Stuff that’s not exactly the stuff of high solemnity, you know.
Untitled, 1988, acrylic on linen, 36 × 24 inches.
GM What’s the big deal?
GS The big deal is that other people seem to see them as the stuff of 2001. You know, monoliths, transcendental forms, pure forms, like Brancusi and his bird. I think of them as being about halfway. I think of them like furniture.
GM You’ve got one that looks like Goya’s Cronus lurking over the horizon over there …
GS That’s right! That’s exactly what it is. And then it becomes approachable because it isn’t. You know what I mean? It’s the sign of that. It’s the way in which that gets done, and so these things become the McGuffins to execute that interest.
GS McGuffins is that Hitchcock term for what the players, the characters in the movie are always looking for. They’re searching for the Maltese falcon or the bottle of radioactive sand or something. The audience thinks that is interesting. That’s nothing. It is not the interesting part of the movie. In Suspicion, they could all be searching for a Maltese falcon and in the Maltese Falcon, they could all be passing along a bottle of radioactive sand. It doesn’t matter. They are simply devices that empower the discourse—allows things to go on. It’s the agar, the net; the medium through which the real practice gets conducted. These things are simply the vehicles, the vessels through which to conduct something else; like the Goya you saw.
GM So you’ve found a transparent vehicle.
GS Yes. And if it gets too filled, if people attach too much to it, if they start trying to make it genital, getting all the forces to localize themselves, then I’ll have to use different shapes. Because the worst thing in the world is that kind of localizing and commodifying that people do with everything. It’s grim, it’s just grim.
GM I’d like to quote a piece from an interview you did with John Erikson. You said, referring to new abstraction, “This is another unsavory mix that the New York Times needs, because the readers don’t want to have a naked experience. They want to have the work shed its freedom as quickly as possible and therefore shed its responsibility so that the viewer is able to name it, buy it, eat it, and shit it out and get it over with. The purpose of art is to maximize human freedom and all they want to do is get it through their digestive tracts as soon as possible. It’s almost as if they’re taking Castor oil or something. It’s torture.” Are these floating forms your glycerin, the Castor oil? Are they an easy way of slipping in meaning?
GS No. I’m hoping that because these won’t respond to an obvious kind of explanation—they are not filled with knives and guns and crosses, stuff that is obviously interesting …
GM Isn’t that the function of these template forms? To take the responsibility of meaning off of you?
GS No. On the contrary. They are to give the viewer responsibility. If you attempt to penetrate these pictures at the level of poking into what’s up with these shapes, then they are not satisfying. That attempt to assign them a specific valence fails. Then you have to think, “Well then, why are they interesting?” Or, “How come I am still looking at them?” But it won’t work on the level of, “Oh, I know why I am looking, it is a picture of a naked lady, of course I am looking at it.” Which is the way pictures usually work. I’d rather make a picture that was not manifestly interesting and yet managed to be worth looking at. I think that’s what happens with a Morandi. You can’t stand in front of it and think, “I know why this is interesting, these bottles are so terrific.” The bottles are obviously not very terrific. In the same sense that nobody in their right mind can think that Mont St. Victoire is an interesting mountain. It’s a joke, this mountain, you know. So then you have to ask, “Why is this an interesting picture?” That is the way I look at these paintings.
1 2 5 4 8, 1985, acrylic on canvas, 34 × 38 inches.
GM What relation do these forms floating in space have to do with say, Surrealist paintings?
GS When I first was painting, I painted Surrealist pictures. One day I sat down and wrote a catalogue of Surrealist devices; inappropriate scale, inappropriate physical properties like instruments that burn, rocks that float; standard Magritte dislocations, scale problems, big things in small places … and after that, I couldn’t make them. I became very disillusioned. What happened was, every once in a while, I would get through to the wheel house of the paintings—figure out how the game was conducted, what made them wrong and then, that was the end of it.
GM Couldn’t you apply the same logic to these paintings?
GS You would certainly think you could and if that were happening I would be right back where I started from. These are like little micro-histories. I reveal something for myself, I perfect it, and I go through a mannerist phase where I make a joke out of it. Then I become disillusioned with it and can’t do it any more. Now, I’m hoping that I won’t do that this time because I think I don’t expect as much as I used to. I used to expect that I would get to this high ground where things were going to be meaningful. Now I’m more resigned. Maybe they are just going to be conducted like meaning and that may be as close as we get, and that’s the breaks.
GM Since very early this spring when I first saw this group of paintings, they have undergone incredible evolution toward a mannerist phase. You seem to have already gone from finding that first deep blush of meaning to where the templates have become a manufacturing device. And now it seems that you are going into an industrial stage, defining them in every possible way to eke out every kind of meaning.
GS Absolutely right. It’s frightening, watching them. I can exhaust something. That is exactly what I can do and do: eat it up, figure it out and do it; run all the permutations, and then, that’s it. Now I am hoping, and this is why I mention Morandi, that I can resign myself to the idea that it’s okay to just move this stuff around and that meaning will bubble up through the cracks, and that I’ll get lucky from time to time. That’s a much more reasonable way to go about life. Instead of everyday waking up and thinking, okay I’ve got to invent the world from scratch today.
GM You said once that to start from scratch every day was demeaning. Why is that true?
GS I think it is part of the unreasonable pressures that are put on artists, to be these paradigms of an almost unreasonable creativity. Another way to look at an artist’s life is that it is not so much that I have to have it mean something every day as that I have to make things that you, the viewer, find meaningful every day.
GM So have you now found a system to produce meaning?
GS In a sense.
GM A little meaning machine?
GS A little meaning machine. Fair enough. I think I have, at this moment, something that works not unlike El Greco’s 28 versions of Christ carrying the cross up Gethsemane. Beautiful little pictures that everyone in Seville wanted. Now, you can’t tell me that he cared about every one of those paintings. The point is the people who bought them cared about them. He more than cares about them, he painted them, for God’s sake. He’s supposed to get up every morning and make a painting. He’s not supposed to get up every morning and have an epiphany (laughter) You can’t burden yourself with that every morning, that’s not a reasonable way to conduct a life. You’re just supposed to get up in the morning and go to work, for God’s sake. That’s all.
GM You’ve got an interesting thing going in the studio with all of these small paintings lined up along the baseboard. On this scale they look like a Life magazine article or a little catalogue of Gary Stephan’s ideas.
GS It is. They are hard won little pictures. I have a right to make these things, I figured it out. I should at least get the right to make ten or 12 of them. The ideal alternative is,“Okay, you killed yourself trying to find this world—now find another.” Forget it!
GM Let me quote another piece of yours,“The tension on the field of all production is temporarily magnified by collectors with no historical consciousness and the self-serving complicity of the avant-garde to go for the quick fix—great taste, less filling—rather than face the over-arching labor of placing real human values deep within history. This short-sighted strategy intentionally marginalizes their practice, sanitizes it for the uncritical viewer.”
GS Words out of my mouth. I’ll stand by them.
GM What if we transpose them onto these paintings?
GS I don’t think it is true. One of the reasons I think that my work continues to crawl along the cracks is that it is neither manifestly radical, nor is it manifestly avant-garde. I can’t give them to the collectors who buy Susan Rothenberg because they smell a rat. And I can’t give them to the collectors who buy Jeff Koons because they think they are too conservative. One group thinks I’m too normal, the other group thinks I’m too strange. Which is exactly the place I think you are supposed to paint: dead center.
GM Doesn’t this idea of production painting collude with “the short-sighted strategy” that you are criticizing?
GS No. The fact that I make 15 of them is because that’s the way normally, people work. I think that they went into the Lascaux caves every day and made another ox. (laughter)
GM Let’s go back to this,“Artists that traffic in consumer culture are at best reporters and at worst, collaborators.” Isn’t this kind of serial manufacturing device “trafficking in consumer culture?”
GS No, it isn’t. The point is that they are speaking in the vernacular of the culture, and that’s what the culture appreciates.
GM And you are speaking in High Art?
GS These are not Goyas and Tintorettos and they are not experienced as such. The people who collect Goyas and Tintorettos don’t buy these. They are people who smell a rat. They say, “What the hell is this? Mickey Mouse goes to Versailles?”
GM You seem to find a great deal of justification in public response.
GS Absolutely. I’m a very strong believer in the reception theory. I mean, I don’t really care very much about how art is sent into the world, what it says it is doing. I’m much more interested in what in fact gets done with it. What people think and what they take. I think you would be crazy to have much at stake in nominal shapes that conduct the picture. It’s the wrong place to invest yourself.
Portrait, 1988, acrylic on linen, 24 × 18 inches.
GM You seem to have an uneasy position at the edge of your own event-field. You speak of “those who face the overarching labor of placing work of real human value deep into history.” What does “real” mean and what does “deep” mean?
GS It’s funny because if I let the cat out of the bag and tell you what it is that is the real project in the pictures … Asked at two levels and simultaneously in everyone’s life the “real” questions are: “Why are we here and where are we going?” and, “Why are we here in LA and where are we going for lunch?” There are the trivial machinations, the details of a lived life, and there are the enormous transpersonal forces that glide over our lives, such as the fate of the planet. The planet really does have an actual destiny. It is really going to get better or worse. People really are going to die by the billions in the year “2020” because we didn’t figure out the greenhouse effect, or maybe we are going to figure it out. There are forces that work at that level. There are also forces like the fact that, I had a mosquito bite when we first started to talk and it is getting on my nerves. I would argue that both of those levels of thought are equally valent. That is the binary, double way these paintings are conducted. There are the big questions—too big, that float along side the venial ones—the too small.
GM Is that why you are so happy about the superimposition of the Mickey Mouse ears with the Goyas?
GS Yes, because I finally got something that is both. It’s such a relief. It’s in solution now. It’s dissolved into the tissue of the work. It’s not being engaged as a kind of manifest content.
GM I feel a tremendous moralizing intent in the pictures …
GS I’m a Catholic boy, I’ve got this stuff on my brain. That’s the way the work is. On the one hand there are a lot of things that I am convinced are important, but I am trying to deal with them so that the viewers can assume the responsibility—if they want to. They are not getting beaten over the head with these pictures. They aren’t forced to think they are a big deal. It’s a choice. It’s like a knife, you can either make dinner with it or slit someone’s throat. They are either a really big deal or you make a couple of sandwiches and that’s that.
GM Messianic jokes.
GS Not exactly jokes. They have the possibility of doing a lot but they don’t mandate it and they don’t guarantee it. It’s at the level of potentials.
GM So you’re simultaneously packing in the meaning and cleaning it out?
GS Exactly. I’m putting it in the state of the possible. It is at rest, with those valences built into them. I don’t want any guarantees that this is Big Time Art, and I don’t want people confident that this a bowl of cherries on the table. It ain’t Keifer and it ain’t Matisse. Your move.
GM I think of Warhol.
GS Be my guest. I don’t. Hmm. I see your point though. The reason that he is not someone who crosses my mind is …
GM But he may be someone who crosses your discourse.
GS I hadn’t thought of that. Sure. Absolutely. He’s someone I’ve never liked. Too close for comfort …
GM The car crashes and the Chronos …
GS I’m not going to talk about Warhol, forget it. (laughter) LONG SILENCE.
Untitled [Chronos], 1988, acrylic on linen, 24 × 36 inches.
GM All right, you won’t talk about Warhol, let’s talk about Tintoretto.
GS Okay. I’m happy now.
GM You’ve often mentioned Tintoretto in relation to your works. Specifically you talked about the Tintoretto painting “The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne,” three figures entwined in space.
GM Well, the Venetians you often talk about have a gorgeous range of color and light, and also a magnificent feeling for the pageantry of sensuality …
GM But what does all that have to do with templates floating in space? What does that light quality have to do with the light in this latitude and the possibilities of sensuality in this civilization? What do Luxe, Calme, and Volupte have to do with a society obsessed with converting pleasure into an exploitable pastime?
GS I find the Venetians historically compatible because most of the 16th-century Venetian work was conducted during the fall of the Renaissance. There’s a kind of pathos in it, and I feel that the Modernist project is also in a kind of 11th hour. So it struck me as a similar, analogous circumstance.
GM So you see this society as a watershed?
GS The one we’re in? Sure. Every moment has its curiosities, its peculiarities, its unique dilemma. But they’re always events that occur within a common field of what it means to be human. I think people are much more inclined to aggrandize the differentness of this century than to talk about the ways in which it obviously shares similar dilemmas, similar fates, with other centuries.
GM So what relation has the “Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne” under the glowing, floating auspices of a sense-drunk and contented Venus have to do with the mathematical technology of your curvilinear templates?
GS There is a quote of Pollock’s that goes something like this: “Because of the way that forces are in this century, invisible forces, the body no longer metaphorizes.” I, at one point, came to believe that a body no longer could function as a metaphor for experience. Which is how it has always historically functioned in pictures and sculpture. You can see desperate attempts to keep that tradition alive with objects that Beuys made, for example, the wires in the fat. They are a kind of parable, a way to talk about the fate of the body in this century. But personally, I don’t think that the body could conduct the question of the moment.
GM Conduct, as in electricity?
GS No, no. Conduct as in music. Permit the question, be a vessel for the question. So these templates, the motifs function in the paintings as stand-ins in the place where meaning would go, if we knew what it was. They function like the figure. They convey a similar kind of space.
GM They look like stand-ins. Why are they back-lit?
GS I think because I don’t know what they are, and if they were front-lit then I’d have to know. See, these pictures reverse an earlier strategy. In an earlier strategy, the figures—the cones and things—were very degraded in terms of interior psychology. I’d fill them up; render them, model them, and give them insides and outsides. I tried to fill them in, and I drained the world they were in to a basically, solid field. With these pictures, what I have done is to empower the field—fill the field in with history and then drain the figures. So the figures now don’t have much characterization. The ground, the world, has characterization.
GM The world, in the pictures, is back-lit as well.
GS But the world is more propertied than the figures at this point which is one of the reasons that that one with an eye is probably not a good idea, because that tends to make the thing and the world equally filled in as it were. You know as much now about the figures as you do about the world it’s in.
GM I think it makes the figures look stranger.
GS Stranger in a very traditional, psychologized way, in that it gives the figure a personality; it begins to locate the figure. If it doesn’t, great, it fits my reception theory. If you say it isn’t I’ll probably shelve the picture, it’s okay with me.
GM I was just thinking about these shapes as being stand-ins for bodies, but also about being very scatological …
GS It’s so funny you say that. I did a painting in graduate school called “Hits the Fan.” It had a zip down/up plane like Newman, but at the bottom there were little pieces of brown paint kind of like stuck to the painting, right, and then all of a sudden a little stick off to the side of the picture. There was a beautiful little white vase, a real vase, that had little pieces of brown paint stuck on it. I kept thinking of that joke, “Where were you when the shit hit the fan?” I kept thinking that on the other side of this wonderful good world, is this world where Marilyn Monroe shit.
GM That’s where the intensity of the relationship to Goya comes in. It’s not just in the image of Chronos. In his later works, Goya dwelled obsessively with the blacker aspects of human experience.
GS That’s the way I’d like it to be, just the way it happened now with you. I didn’t tell you that but you looked at them long enough and all of a sudden you thought, “My God, what else is at issue here?”
There’s this wonderful Hitchcock film where a saboteur gives a kid a birthday cake to take across town in a bus. The birthday cake has a time bomb planted in it and the kid is simply supposed to deliver it. The bus is late and the kid, who has no idea what he is carrying, takes a painfully slow trolley across town. The whole time this wonderfully pedestrian object is being moved through the movie you know its something else. It’s terrifying. I want it to be like that. Normal objects that don’t work right. What could be more normal than a quintessentially Renaissance picture that doesn’t work right? I can conduct the kinds of questions that interest me in this way. It’s the only way I know how to talk about it. I don’t know how to do it straight up.
GM Personally I think that painting something, whatever the shtick or subject is—be it a style of abstraction or a set of representations—whatever is recognizable, is a kind of petticoat. Deeper meanings function under the skirt of banality, but it still manages to obscure the important point.
GS Yes, these appear to be kind of friendly petticoats. They will, when you let them into your house, be okay. Then other things can work their way out of the picture. That’s the way the paintings work, they release themselves in time. That’s the way the most interesting paintings work.
GM Do you think that all paintings function as covers for their ideas?
GS No, not all painting, but the ones that interest me do. Paintings that interest me most are painting like the portrait of Dorian Gray. From underneath the manifest text, the alleged purpose of the picture, there is some kind of hidden agenda and its the only one you can really talk about. The real significance of the picture is conducted through that device. I think if you don’t do it through that device then it is back to where we started from, you find yourself basically illustrating your prejudices.