James Hyde by Archie Rand

BOMB 67 Spring 1999
Bombcover 67 1024X1024

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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James Hyde, Route, 1995, oil paint, enamel, acetate, silicone, glass, 38¼ x 51 x 14¼”. Courtesy of Tobey Devan Lewis. All photos by Tom Warren, except where noted.

In the late 1980s it became apparent that a small grouping of young artists was falling through the sifter grate. Although there was precedent for their discomfortingly hybrid stance in the work of mainstream renegades (a list too absurd and unhomogenous to give here), these younger artists were distinguished by a confident and spooky relaxation, the grudging elegance with which they fielded their challenging quirkiness. Their surprising sophistication was bored and annoyed by that droit-de-seigneur, baroque art talk. In the unplanned company of their very numbers, their conglomerate existence bespoke a loose but unidentified movement. At the time, the Paolo Baldacci Gallery, which had begun as the finest repository of futurist and metaphysical school works in New York, took on some of these stylistically unaffiliated artists.

In the mid 1990s, I found myself attending, through a combination of allegiances and curiosity, almost every opening at the 57th Street Baldacci Gallery. I was introduced to James Hyde, already an important artist. I knew Jim’s work and was intrigued by it. Jim made direct abstraction. His work had a rare quality of presence that side-stepped gamesmanship. Jim made things.

Archie Rand Looking at the critical material available, there is a great difference between how some viewers perceive your work and how it is represented in print. How do you go about making something and what values do you hold dear when working in your studio?

James Hyde Fundamentally, I enjoy making things and looking at things; that’s what studio practice is about. If you’re not enjoying the materials—how they come together, the play in the work—it doesn’t really matter what ideas you have because they’re left for dead. They should feel animate. This may sound corny, but art is something that affirms being alive and having pleasure.

AR Ad Reinhardt is someone you look to. Reinhardt generated a propaganda surrounding his output that created a distance between the work and how the viewer receives it; there isdistance between the emotional necessity of somebody locking themselves in a studio for 12 hours a day and the actual making of the work. You talk about being in the studio and enjoying the materials, however, your work contains such strong affections. The “hand” in your work revives aspects that Reinhardt would consider caprice and how you continue to invoke that hand overrides the irony. It bespeaks the messy intrusion of a humanity, a concern which is …

JH An antidote to Reinhardt’s puritanism?

AR I want to see if I can draw out from you something closer to the bone, something more self-revealing. You reinstate peripheral materials. You make newly viable recipes that no longer have currency, like your approach to fresco. Going back in time, reusing old techniques, plugs you into a dialogue with dead artists and smacks of something embarrassingly spiritual. Your work synthesizes reactions in me that aren’t necessarily a response to the work’s actual construction. I’m getting at this: when Pollock died, Franz Kline sat in the Cedar Bar and cried relentlessly. He finally said that Pollock had painted the sky and the stars, and even the birds were appointed. There are real differences in the ways viewers allow themselves to accept visual information. Most, unlike Kline, refrain from causing themselves any emotional hurt that might be generated through having a moral or psychological interaction with what the work may generate—and the responses can’t always be translated into verbal dialogue, they simply sit in the mind and rattle around like a .22 caliber bullet.

JH Reinhardt seemed at pains to deny the spirituality in his work, but it’s there. My idea of spirituality is close to his. It’s an elusive thing. If you try to grab it, to present it, it’s gone. It is not in the thing itself but between things.

AR Well, I’m referring to something actually more dangerous than the presentation. You don’t attempt to make pictures that refer back to a specific history of sacredness. When you produce, you end up with reliquaries, evidence of a process that goes beyond—only flirts with the re-deployment of materials in the first couple of seconds. After that, your involvement with the materials becomes more of a voice, because the decisions you make are decisions based on a lifetime of reacting to, basically eating, aesthetic information. I notice you throw references to classical western compositional modes into your work as unifying factors. The golden section shows up. Objects are presented with reverence—almost as if they were fingers of St. James in some little box in Barcelona. That’s something about your work I don’t think has been addressed critically, but is just as pregnant as any of the more abstruse factors that fit into a preexisting discourse.

JH I was in Italy for three months in 1984, and I came back to New York thinking that I had actually become a Roman Catholic. Even though, intellectually, I was agnostic, I could not deny the reality of the suffering of Christ; it’s so much a part of the paintings I had been looking at. I also couldn’t ignore the love and pleasure of the Madonna and child. Suffering and pleasure are very real. You can call it “spiritual”—at a certain point, language gets cheap in these situations—but in a sense, it’s the only type of reality we have. Images are not real, even materials are barely real these days. Pleasure and texture, loss and distance—these are the parts from which I put work together. My work is formal in that I try to organize these things in a palpable way, but …

AR It’s the palpability and the recognition I’m referring to. I don’t mean to confuse the spiritual and religious. This afternoon, I saw some very small works in your studio that I found deeply moving. Styrofoam, I guess, those painted things against the wall …

JH Yeah, the “torqued monochromes”—chunks of Styrofoam board coated with concrete and this gooey acrylic medium, then painted a gloss color.

AR I started to think, This is no accident—if you split open any number of artists, you will find they are more Jungian than Freudian—so what is the collective memory in Jim’s work? What am I moved by? I’m looking at this wet, glistening red and there are only a few conclusions, even subconsciously, to which I can refer. I avert the idea of blood by deciding that I’m looking at the red of a sunset. By using unfamiliar materials, or at least not well-traveled materials, you’re able to extrapolate emotion from the viewer’s experience with a regularity I find invigorating. It seems you’re addressing our ability to make connections without taking illustrative or narrative directions that can be reassembled. This is not unlike people finding curious stones on the beach. What is it that moves me when I see a bunch of crumpled foil hanging on the wall?

JH If I put crumpled foil on the wall, I need to know what language frames that crumple so that it comes as a surprise or seems striking. I look at art to learn the language of art making. It’s wonderful because it is a long and complex process; learning is always involved. Making art work has to have discovery. If it doesn’t, it loses its quality of being real for me.

AR In that sense, I agree with your choice of abstraction as the most authentic and fertile field for such investigation, because any ability to retrace it is going to get stymied in conjecture. Simply put, there are things about our experience as viewers, tied to a cultural history, that your use of materials reactivates. So who or what do you hold yourself accountable to in terms of the clarity or completion of your studio practice? When do you put the materials down and say, That’s talking to me? What is looking over your shoulder to ascertain the validity of your decision?

JH As artists, we all create our audience as much as we create objects. I make my audience from my experiences, whether I am listening to Willie Nelson or Wu Tang. That’s part of my audience just as Tiepolo and Pollock are.

AR When you talk about Tiepolo and Pollock you talk about an audience of dead people. That’s the kind of invocation of the spiritual I want to readdress. David Kaufman uses an Adorno quote in one of your catalog essays, “Art is magic freed from the lie that it is the truth.” I’m curious as to why we take for granted that art is magic. What is the transformation that occurs? How much do the artist and viewer have to purchase into the notion that we are all sharing a car on this ride of cultural velocity? Once that starts to include the approval or participation of dead people like Tiepolo, or Picasso, or Pollock; what does that imply about what we do in the studio and why we do it?

JH Truth is very different in art than in verbal language. In art we start with truth and then we make fictions out of it, and then, through the fictions, hopefully arrive at something recognizable as truth, as urgent or as important. I think what makes art magic is this series of transformations.

AR I’m curious about that transformation. For instance, you reassign stature to materials that would either get short shrift or not even be considered.

JH I’m involved with taking materials and making them into images. I’m not interested in presenting materials. They have to somehow do something. If they are inert, they’re relentlessly uninteresting. So I poke them, prod them, try to make them speak, and that involves my personal application of knowledge about art. It’s a way of drawing out a whole history of values and knowledge to bring those noisy materials to a point where it all seems both real and larger than what it is.

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James Hyde, Tackle, 1996, glass box with oil paint, paper, plastic, enamel and caulk, 25 x 24 x 3 inches.

AR Your use of the word “real” is as open-ended as Adorno’s use of the word “magic.” I’ve noticed that nothing I’ve seen of yours, including the work on paper, bears analysis as a drawing. It probably has to do with the dispossession of drawing, through the introduction of oil paint, as being a preparatory rather than a primary activity. When someone does a drawing, the viewer, if asked what they are looking at will say, “Well, that’s a drawing of Stravinsky” or of so-and-so—but if we were to go to the Sistine Chapel and point to the ceiling and say, “What is that?” the response would be, “That’s Isaiah.” Nobody says that’s a painting of Isaiah. Painting exhibits a contract with the audience that neither drawing nor most sculpture has. You refer to yourself as a painter. And, like a fresco painter, you cover to reveal. When you do your boxes with the grease or the scraps inside, or your draped glass pieces, the Styrofoam and concrete objects, or your tape pieces, there is an acknowledgment that we are dealing with—despite their three dimensionality—something that represents itself as a two-dimensional object, that in a funny way implies a third and fourth dimensional reality. I find it uncanny that you’re able to elicit this kind of two-dimensional belief system out of three-dimensional objects. It has a lot to do with the relief quality. The means of fabrication is immediately and irrelevantly evident. It is irrevocable. This is where Adorno’s use of the word “magic” and your use of “real” comes in. By continuing to paint in an era when we have so many alternative methods of …

JH Image delivery.

AR Right, image delivery systems. (laughter) Your insistence on referring to your work as painting is very interesting because it acknowledges the contract that visual society has made with the necessity of transcendence. The necessity of the mind mediating through an object. It’s idolatry.

JH We were talking earlier about when your father saw your first painting and told you to get out of the house. You had produced something competitive, incarnate and frighteningly alive.

AR Well, I appreciate your confidence. My father, understanding the transcendent quality of what a painting represents in society, saw that I seemed to transgress that faith by turning out an abstract painting which was not possible for him to pray to, or walk through, as Alice walks through the looking glass. He felt I had abrogated something about how we view and use paintings. You make the same kinds of transgressive moves in your work, but your tremendous respect and affection is apparent to your audience despite all the wise-guy antics. It’s that which makes you an admirable and definitely un-postmodern artist. Or maybe a new classification has to be admitted.

JH Let’s just not call it post-postmodern.

AR Certainly we are operating off a set of values that would not have been comfortable for people we admire—from Pollock to Reinhardt—but is projecting itself off something that preexists. It has roots in early modernism. What you are doing is generated by the past 40 or 50 years of visual discourse.

JH If you think about what it means to look at a lot of art—you retain images of what art looks like, and the image of the mechanics of visual constructions. When you see an object you keep an image of it as if you were carrying its photograph alongside what it is. I try to turn the image back into something more corporeal, experiential.

AR If what you are saying is correct, then the work of Andy Warhol could also be read in terms of simple image recall, which would leave the critical thinking on his work with nothing but psychology. Warhol, avoiding abject sentiment, decides to paint something not philosophically arch, but rather, the object of affection. What could be a more natural fixation for a poor white kid than Coca-Cola, Campbell’s soup, Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor? Objects that survive, things you can count on, that give you comfort. Such a reading leaves theory nowhere to go because it reverts back to recognition rather than strategy. Pound says that what really matters is the quality of the affection. Your colleagues have noted this in your work, the outstanding quality of affection—which is nondiscursive.

JH The quality of the affection is in the enjoyment of making and bringing things to the front to be seen in new ways. I love to cook. Beginning with the environment, the number of people involved, the materials at hand … I’m working towards an audience and there is a whole history of recipes and tastes to bring together. It’s also relaxing. I stop talking when I cook. I’m involved in how the garlic crushes, how fresh it is, the smell of it on my fingers and the snapping of it in the pan as it fries. These things are simply beautiful. When something is well-cooked everybody is happy, and that’s an enormous part of it. But the great thing about cooking—different than art no matter what happens—is that after you clean up the dishes, it’s gone. You don’t have to look at it in a couple of years. Its disposability is liberating and somehow enhances its pleasure.

AR Many painters I know are good cooks. Cooking involves the desire to integrate oneself back into a social situation—what art does for artists. Making art is a way for artists to reinvest in a social situation from which they must implicitly feel left out. Artists lock themselves in the studio for X number of hours and produce work that stands in the artists’ stead as nutrition and charity … whatever kind of interaction the artist would wish to have socially. Cooking is a wonderful analogy: it’s a matter of human necessity. This is more of an anthropological than an aesthetic conversation. When Matisse talks about making pictures that the bourgeois businessman can come home to and relax under, he’s not making a plea for capitalist appreciation. He’s saying that he wants to invoke himself back into the society he can no longer enter because he is an artist. Painting and cooking are nonverbal acts of generosity and community appreciation.

JH Cooking is not so much a generous thing as it is something I enjoy. It’s a record of a little adventure of imagination. It’s not about perfection for me. This small trip of imagination loops back into a social space where it can be talked around, talked about, it becomes a platform for community. I don’t feel quite like myself unless I am able to manipulate my environment in that way and that’s why, although I often cook in a generous way, that’s not my motive.

AR I’m not saying that what the artist does is an act of conscious charity or generosity, but then I don’t think what Mother Theresa or Pope John did by washing people’s feet was an act of conscious generosity. I think it was an act of personal salvation. The act of cooking, very much like being in the studio, appears generous, because you give people sustenance, but the motivation that goes into it is a self-involved, creative activity.

Your work leapfrogs over those pockets of current discourse, no matter how convoluted and overreaching the intelligence of the critic may be. In your work, irony appears to be a rather generic and available hook that the critical eye can latch onto and refer to as something overt and obtainable, possibly even vulgar.

JH Well, that’s what happens when my work gets classified as ironic comment. That’s only a small part of what the work is about, so, at a certain point, that justification becomes embarrassing. It’s just an unsatisfying way to describe the work. Irony is an inescapable part of life in the 20th century. It’s part of art making. Irony is a pretense, holding something out and giving something else instead. That is what any presentation of a hermetic image does, and it’s the basis for how images can be transformative.

AR Because the artist believes, regardless, I feel that the artist cannot partake of the construct—no matter how true. As a viewer, what I take from your work is that I am not dealing with an irony that can be verbally reconstituted but with the humor of a humanitarian. It draws up the difference between a portrait painter who catches the viewer vis-á-vis a technical flourish and the portrait painter who holds the viewer by retracing the character of the sitter. You’re one of the few contemporary painters and oddly one of the rare abstract painters involved in the character of the “person” you concoct. After your critic realizes that—once they’ve been sucked in by what they think may be irony—whatever their initially succinct argument was collapses.

JH I don’t think either of us present work that gives the viewer everything: the image, the message. We both present a stream of pointers and the viewer follows the various processes of the work. It’s in these processes that the actual painting is found, not in the object itself.

AR Yes, the nakedness of your work process is retraceable for the viewer. But the kind of thought process that actually occurs as the viewer looks at the work can’t be rearticulated. It’s the kind of thought that goes on when you sit watching embers or the sea, or smell the air in the forest: the experience of being. One of the values of your work, one of the favors you do, is to allow that much rarer experience to happen. As Malcolm Morley said about Robert Ryman’s paintings, it’s sensation without memory. Memory is there, but the specific nature of that memory is not necessary retrievable, or necessary.

JH Duration in art is tricky because we’re used to the taking in of images as immediate. But actually all sorts of things are going on. The act of looking is one part of a large, always changing matrix, in part evoked by the image and in part arbitrary and personal. How you walk up to and around a painting or how it reminds you of Uncle Ned’s mustache—all these things produce little bits of duration, places to inhabit.

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James Hyde, Work bench and assorted frescoes and other paintings. Courtesy of James Hyde.

AR Your approach to objects on our aesthetic periphery, embracing them into your work as no longer orphaned is something I’d like to talk about—your egalitarian elevation of furniture into the mix of your work and your snatching of the mobile from Alexander Calder.

JH You’ve been speaking about spirituality. What’s spirituality really, but the promise of redemption? I’m very interested in ruins; when something is pushed to the side, ignored or forgotten, it’s ripe for being transformed and redeemed. I’ve been making mobiles—taking this type of art which has become a generic child’s toy and encapsulated in history by Calder’s success, and trying to give it a different and vital expression.

AR You have that blue plastic piece, Flex, that reminds me of Jay De Feo’s work, and those stick things in your mobiles remind me, in feeling, of Ibram Lassaw. Without ever quoting them you seem to perpetrate acts of indiscriminate camaraderie between yourself and artists who came before—the care you take to resuscitate their efforts and alloy them with something as formidable as Calder is a gracious act. And it extends to your home, which is always so open and accommodating, there’s so much love in your house.

JH It’s how you look at your work. Is it executing a job or is it something that you cultivate like a garden, or how you teach and learn from everyone around you? As artists we try to bring people into our processes of looking, thinking and feeling; how we make and what we feel is valuable.

AR So why do you think the critical community at large has been unable to find this—not only in your work, but in contemporary art in general?

JH Today, we have a love of figuring out the mechanics of art. I find myself slipping into this. If you find a successful mechanical way of creating something and it feels good, you want to imitate it, replicate it. That’s a problem. Just replicating the mechanics of a work of art can be so seductive it’s possible to forget why we’re doing it. I don’t think critics are any worse about that than artists.

AR I do. Franz Kline said, “Painting has nothing to do with knowing, it has to do with giving.” People found that unacceptably direct, unacceptably easy. They want to think there’s some hierarchical gamut to go through to earn the right to absorb cultural information. There’s always been a camouflage of discourse—the priests interpret the text creating a distance from the divine writ the artist has received. There’s something insidious about that which becomes blatant in times as quiet as these, when there’s no need for such interpretation because the text is either so lame, or in the case of the better artists, so available, that the people are perfectly capable of feeding themselves without having the processor, the middle man, taking a cut.

JH These times are quiet. It’s almost like everyone is catching their breath—the world has been changing so much. We’ve seen the end of an industrial age when a clear relation of production and reception dominated our imagination. The categories are confused now and there’s a lot of new stuff to make sense of. Part of the obfuscation and distancing is about this overwhelming change. What we see as real, what we understand as information, as natural, as cultural … all of these categories don’t work the way they did even 20 years ago. I think it’s really a fascinating time to be an artist. Artists don’t invent new culture but we’re in the business of trying to make sense of it. But your point is well taken. People are not putting themselves on the line emotionally. They’re accepting mechanical solutions and glib, ironic answers rather than real emotional sorting out. But good criticism, like the work of Carlo Ginzburg on Piero della Francesca, is beautiful. It follows different theories about a single painting but in the end there are no real answers.

AR The enigma theories …

JH You read this book and come to feel a companionship with Piero without knowing specifically what he was up to. You are left with an appreciation of the enigma. It’s that process which is wonderful. Though spirituality is something I always tend to step back from …

AR That’s why I brought it up.

JH These are such difficult areas, more difficult and painful than dealing with—in your case—the mixing of cartoon imagery with religious imagery and various painterly tropes; for me, restoring and giving a different voice to the mobile or shaped panel. In other words, our formal concerns.

AR That’s what we have in common. You take pieces of information that have become so disparately compartmentalized. You simply want to stop the nationalism of that intellectual possession because it can only lead to combat. Both of us bring together things that really don’t want to be in the same room with each other. There has to be a certain optimism in what both of us do that confronts territorialism.

JH Let’s make a distinction between nationalism and patriotism. I’ve always been against nationalism, but patriotism is a cool idea. It means that at times you go against the state’s interest in support of our human community.

AR Patriotism involves grace, the idea that you’re involved with something that has meaningrather than something that declares.

JH I don’t think anybody becomes an artist because they don’t believe. In order to become an artist you have to be a hard-core believer. As you go through life, you get beat up a few times and then you have to come up with covers and ways to protect those beliefs. The trick is, as you become more confident, to let those protective structures down.

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James Hyde, Sweep, 1997, acrylic on carpet on steel frame, 57 x 144 x 20 inches.

AR You haven’t seemed to sacrifice any of your primary romanticism for the sake of temporary acceptance. It’s not as if you make a moral decision that you’re not going to do it, but you find yourself incapable of doing it because what attracted you to art is that it’s one of the few places where you can speak freely. To compromise that is unbecoming.

JH I’ve been in situations where I convinced myself that I needed to make my work a bit more like this or that, sometimes it was a good thing, sometimes it was a disaster. I’m always trying to relate my work to what’s going on around me. The real point is the interaction, the improvisation, something very different from ideology. If you think about it, art making is entirely collaborative, whether you’re talking with all your friends or all those dead artists or future artists. Art has never been made as a singular process. There has always been a group of involved and interested people, and a dialogue going on around them. That’s why Renaissance Italy and turn-of-the-century Paris were hot spots, that is why New York in the ’40s was cool. This is at odds with the whole myth of artists being lonely, lost souls, working on their own.

AR As a young artist I was hanging around Gilbert Sorrentino. At that time he was mainly known as a poet, and he was talking about his work process. He was writing in his room, and his wife, Vicky, opened the door and saw him lying on the bed, reading a comic book. She closed the door and left him alone because she knew that he was working. (laughter) I never forgot that. I thought what a great understanding of the creative process. Talk about collaboration. Pull together Captain Marvel and Ezra Pound—you’re doing something pretty good. There was a popular book called Chaos by James Gleick, where he tells a story about this guy at Bell Labs who’d go out every night, smoke cigarettes and look at the sky. The guy did this for six months and all of his science colleagues thought he wasn’t getting any work done. And then he comes up with chaos theory while he’s watching the smoke rings. That story seems to underlie the notion of the artist as a genius in isolation. The fact remains, he couldn’t have come to those conclusions unless he was at Bell Labs, a community where everybody was working and ideas were coming out. He wouldn’t have done that on his own.

JH That was the thing about the Baldacci Gallery experiment that we were both involved in a few years ago. It wasn’t a gallery modeled on a sports team, out there to win, or a commercial machine. There was an idea of communal experiment.

AR It was a potentially extraordinary laboratory, the only gallery I’ve been in where the thing being made seemed bigger than the works of individual artists. It was new information. Those energies are out there, but they probably won’t be corralled again under one umbrella.

JH Everybody in the gallery has stayed friends but there was something really special about having an informal arena where everything came together, and you actually saw the objects in the same place.

AR And realized that the objects were conversing, which was eerie—to see the visual incongruity of things so psychically in tune—it was a new feeling. That gallery had the life span of a nanosecond, and it was something I’ll always remember.

JH Artists often have anxiety that their ideas will be stolen, but that’s bullshit. Why else are we living and showing in New York except to have our ideas cribbed and to crib other people’s ideas?

AR We’re making food and we’re in big trouble if nobody eats. (laughter) We should all be so lucky as to be cribbed off of. If they can take it and do it better, then you deserve what you get. (laughter)

JH Time to go back to the studio and work harder. When work is finished, it seems like a solution, but it really isn’t. If you start thinking about it as a solution, then it becomes fast food; you’re talking McDonald’s instead of cooking.

AR You make an interesting point. I don’t think anyone in the gallery was thinking in terms of product but in terms of leaving evidence of an exchange. It was the peculiar quality of that engagement that interested me—which was then recognizable in the quality in the artist’s work. I keep thinking about how paintings function in society—where they come from, why we need them. I mean the stories about the Greek or Roman artist X, whose paintings were so real that the birds flew into them.

JH That’s a Greek story.

AR Why is it necessary to endow a painter with such skills of illusion that the birds are fooled? To whose benefit is it to have a painter whose most valuable attribute is that you actually believe it’s real? Why would someone need to do that, and what desire does that fulfill in the perceiver? How you physically make paintings in your voice, is your business really, but how they affect a consumer of your work is what interests me. You don’t put your utensils down until these things start to talk as relics. When you brought up ruins before, you never made reference to the national reconstruction of the ruin, but to the human reconstruction of the ruin … I don’t believe we’ve smoked this whole pack of cigarettes.

JH The question is, will we finish the tape or the pack first?

AR There’s something pathetic about two painters sitting in a bar in Brooklyn having this kind of discussion. However, I find the patheticness of it the perfect cover.

JH That’s the thing I’ve always liked about Brooklyn; it’s just a little bit outside.

AR I love Brooklyn specifically because it’s the second place. It’s a good place to hang out, a guerrilla existence. You can find anybody in Manhattan, but you say “Brooklyn” and you might as well be saying, Go find them in the Andes.

JH That’s changing. Manhattan has centered itself so squarely that Brooklyn will be pulled more and more inside its orbit.

AR No, Brooklyn will always be a feeder borough. It’s our Left Bank. It exists to supply New York.

JH Back to what we were saying, it’s great when people who don’t know the art rhetoric look at something and go, “Oh that’s cool!” If you don’t tell them it’s art, they can really get into it. But as soon as you tell them it’s art, then the dialogue collapses.

AR Do you tell them anything or do you just let them come across it?

JH I had an enormous blue fresco on Styrofoam in my living room. One day two delivery guys came, one from UPS and the other from FedEx—and both of them were tripping over themselves to get into the house and see what the hell it was. That type of validation is much more triumphant than a great review in a top magazine, though less bankable.

AR It’s the reverse of the Geldzhaler story about pop art. He said pop art was the first movement recognizable to the public as art since surrealism. I think a TV repairman came to his apartment and he had a Warhol over his TV—

JH He says, “That’s pop art”?

AR You know the story?

JH No, but …

AR That’s exactly what he said, “What’s that? Pop art?”

JH That’s a problem with pop and surrealism. People know what it is and with art maybe they shouldn’t be so sure. Abstract art has become recognizable. You can show anyone an abstract painting, ask them what it is and they’ll tell you, “That’s abstract art!” So abstract art is no longer abstract. It’s a pretty dodgy condition, but one that opens up a lot of possibilities.

AR Abstraction is just another piece of available visual language. It’s already been incorporated into the canon of imagery and if you choose to partake in it now, you’re partaking in a system of representation that is as stodgy as any other system of iconography.

JH As still lifes—

AR Just be aware, it certainly isn’t going to give you any cool points—the phrase I used in an article I wrote on abstraction for an Italian art magazine was “the train has long left this station.” Now that it’s lost its revolutionary prowess, does it have any validity as an image-making procedure?

JH At one point in my life it was very important for my identity to be an abstract painter; now it’s just what I do. It’s a way to look at imagery, a particular way of seeing things. I’ve accepted this as my genre and I like the history of it. You don’t get any cool points for it, but I think it’s cool. (laughter) What I hope I’m doing is imagistic; it’s not so much about the materials but the way they are images and the way they come together; so that looking at the painting is an experience. For me it’s the experience that should spin off a variety of images, rather than the painting’s image creating the experience. I want to get the paintings to the point where they become a thick texture of object and image. That’s the area I’m interested in performing—like a chef.

Jacqueline Humphries by Cecily Brown
Humphries 01
Jacqueline Humphries by Cecily Brown
Humphries 01

It’s a relatively limited type of adjective that clings to recent abstract painting: intricate, quiet, lyrical, seductive, mysterious, atmospheric.

Sadie Benning by Lia Gangitano
Benning Bomb 01

“With film, you have sound and you can construct this whole environment that allows for a certain feeling to exist for someone watching. There’s more of a burden on a painting to develop these kinds of feelings or experiences in one frame.”

Rochelle Feinstein by Justin Lieberman
Theestateofrochelle Final Body

Feinstein talks with fellow painter Lieberman about The Estate of Rochelle F., a pre-posthumous, post-humorous painting project for which she utilized only materials already present in her studio.

Originally published in

BOMB 67, Spring 1999

Featuring interviews with James Hyde, Mary Heilmann, Alan Warner, Scott Spencer, Catherine Gund-Saalfield, Cassandra Wilson, Revenge Effect, Elevator Repair Service, Zoe Wanamaker, and A Day in Brasilia. 

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