My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
This interview is excerpted from the University of Virginia Press’s monograph Lincoln Perry’s Charlottesville. It is rare for BOMB to run an interview that its editors did not themselves commission, and even rarer for us to publish an excerpt from a forthcoming book. It is due to the excellence of this interview that it appears in our pages. We are extremely grateful to the University of Virginia Press for allowing its inclusion.
My husband and I have lived in Charlottesville on and off since we first met, almost 20 years ago. Teaching at the University of Virginia was my first job when I got out of graduate school. It was there that I met Lincoln, who had come from New York to teach at the university for a semester as a visiting artist. Charlottesville is one of three locations where we now live. He spends more time on campus than I do, but then, I’m not painting it. Every so often I go into Cabell Hall and stare with amazement at his mural. Painted on canvas (subsequently glued to the walls of the building), the panels were begun in his studio in Maine, and finished at a rented warehouse in New Hampshire where, for the first time, he could see all the panels together.
Cabell Hall, designed by McKim, Mead and White, is a not very inspiring building; its construction closed off “the Lawn”—the stretch of grass from the Rotunda to what Thomas Jefferson intended to be a vista to the mountains in the distance. Illusionistically, the mural re-opens the closed space. It was installed outside the entrance to the music auditorium, where a reproduction of Raphael’s School of Athens painting hangs; a painting to which the mural also refers. There are eleven panels, most of which can be seen, though not taken in at once, when entering. They are twelve and a half feet high and a total of seventy-two feet across. The red-haired model appears in all the panels: she’s a student going through her education at the university. The final panel returns her to the larger—and sparer—world, having taken her from the first day of class to graduation.
Ann Beattie What interests you about doing large-scale murals?
Lincoln Perry I suppose the difference between paintings done on easels and murals might resemble that between the short story and the novel, or between a lyric and an epic poem, or, who knows, maybe a song and an opera. Murals have the scope, the room, to develop a story over time, to trace changes with recurring leitmotifs, to provide a sort of cumulative narrative. The problem is that we don’t seem to share stories in common that the painter can take for granted and play riffs on, the way a Renaissance artist could approach the infancy of John the Baptist, say. This has been the hardest part for me, finding a narrative that already lives in the public imagination. Well, actually the hardest part is finding anyone who is aware of the option of putting a mural in a building at all. But once that particular nut is cracked, you try to find a story that resonates visually, that might mean something to the likely audience. Murals give a reassuring sense that you can connect with people, that they will see your work over and over and perhaps get something new from it each time.
AB How did the concept for the UVA mural originate?
LP I loved this place from the day I saw it. I loved the underlying sense of metaphor in the architecture, the feeling that Mr. Jefferson wanted students to go on a kind of secular Pilgrim’s Progress, so that walking through the original campus, or Lawn, becomes educational in itself. You have to attain the knowledge stored in the Rotunda/library, go uphill to earn it, then you descend into the world at the open end of the Lawn guided by the Pavilion/classrooms, out into the mountains beyond. It seemed to me that this effort is reenacted by all students who have graduated since the school’s inception, so even though the red-headed girl or protagonist is moving in a linear way across the span of Cabell’s lobby, she is part of this cyclical repetition, this continuity.
AB Since the space where the painting would be installed already existed, were there certain restrictions or problems—or even advantages—you had to work with?
LP Good question. So far I’ve always done murals in spaces either already planned or built. I would dearly love to work with an architect, a kindred spirit, as a collaboration. I’m pretty good at anticipating what the final space will look or feel like just from plans (a friend says all painters interested in space are frustrated architects). But Cabell had been there for almost a century when I walked in, so you’re collaborating with a very tangible ghost. What might Stanford White, the architect of Cabell, have wanted; what does his lobby want? What are its implications in terms of narrative? First of all, like White himself, I’m not sure the building should even be there. It blocked off the Lawn, making its guiding arms into a closed embrace, a sort of box. Before 1898 you marched out into the landscape, the future. Now you sort of dribble out the holes in the box. That implied, to me, that the mural could suggest the view that used to be there, the one toward the mountains. The repeating columns and pilasters suggest an episodic series of events, acts connected spatially but temporally separate and sequential. We read from left to right, so start with the first day of class in the big panel to the left, follow around to the central, punctuating panel that faces the main door, then have her graduate on the right.
So far all of the spaces I’ve worked with have suggested a story. The one in Saint Louis, for MetLife, implied a circle, or cycle, a repeating day-in-the-life around the rectangular enclosed lobby. Joyce’s Ulysses came to mind, only set with a businessman making the rounds from morning to night in recognizable Saint Louis locations; Homer’s lotus eaters in the morning at Soulard Market, the passage under the legs of Polyphemus as embodied by the columns of MetLife’s building (I loved the fact that their logo looks like a big, octagonal eye), all the way around to evening back at his house in the suburbs. Or the one for Carr and Co. in DC, where the lobby’s convex curve suggested a story you couldn’t take in all at once. If it had been concave, it would have suggested a diorama, the kind of thing designed to make you feel you were there at Gettysburg in lower-tech times. So that and the fact that Carr’s building was at 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue, two doors down from the White House, suggested a play on Alice in Wonderland. She steps through the looking glass into a tour of the White House as seen through various cross-cultural painting conventions—Indian, African, Asian—until she sees the Chinese ambassador greeting the president at the center of the 40-foot span. The Chinese delegation stands in a space defined by Asian nonconvergent orthogonals, while the US president stands in a hallway purposely exaggerated in one-point perspective. As with the Cabell mural, you can’t take it in all at once; you have to take it in as you go. Just like life.
AB What sort of note taking goes on before you start? Is this process very different, doing a multipanel, large-scale painting, or does such planning happen routinely before you begin any painting?
LP That question reminds me of Holly Wright’s Christmas ditty describing “Lincoln, who never could paint without thinkin’.” The biggish painting from last winter, the one of the back deck in Florida, was started without any sketches, any preparation, just a good feeling about the back deck. I don’t know if we can do anything without thinking, or if I can, but certainly murals 75 feet wide aren’t the place to work out problems better anticipated in sketches an inch high. All those little line drawings eliminate dead ends and false starts. You and I are different in this; I remember how, in order to write an outline, a “bible,” for a possible TV show, you wrote the whole thing out then condensed it. Apart from all the compositional sketches, I prowled around the campus taking notes, hoping to be surprised. Once I saw workmen rebuilding one of the Pavilion balconies, once a male cheerleader lifting a girl above his head; both made it into the painting.
AB If you’d had an opportunity to run your plans past Jefferson, would that have been interesting, or intimidating?
LP Totally intimidating.
AB I assume you function as both painter and critic, in the same way a writer writes and then revises and edits?
LP That was what we talked to the Contemporary Club of Albemarle about. You showed pages of your work, rough drafts, so blackened they looked like the censored pages my father got from the government under the Freedom of Information Act. I showed those little first drafts, the options tried and tested, that evolved into the final maquette, or sketch, ten feet across. Just as you’ve said novels are almost impossible to write because the mind can’t hold all that information at once, unfinished murals that are just too large to hang and see together in the studio boggle the mind unless you have a pretty good mental picture of the whole.
AB The narrative precedes the painting. Does painting the story you’ve worked out restrict you? Free you up, in some way?
LP The narrative doesn’t always precede the painting. The Cabell one isn’t based on an actual, borrowed text, so it evolved in response to the space. Put yourself in the red-haired girl’s shoes. Big panel; first day, you climb stairs with others, work your way up a kind of spiral. Come around the corner and you’re watching us descend the real stairs from your perch behind the railing. Poke your head out to see if the rain has stopped. Avoid some of the distractions or temptations of student life. The narrative evolved as a sort of two steps forward, one step back progress. She’s anonymous at first, gradually coming into her own, but along the way she’s rained on, teased with fast food, she sprains her ankle. She finally stands in the light; then, being a klutz, she drops her violin while being ogled by men repairing a trellis. Underlying patterns, the seasons, the times of day, those have always been important to me because I’m so troubled by our mad linear rush, our conviction that we’re progressing, getting better in every way. Overall I suppose this is a somewhat optimistic narrative, because she finds her voice, her instrument, though you sense she isn’t going to lead an untroubled life.
AB At which point did you rethink certain aspects, such as color, figure groupings, et cetera?
LP I’m sure you remember that very bad day when I learned that redheads never wear red. That altered the whole color balance. That can happen fairly late in the process, though: the same thing happened to the Ulysses figure; his shirt went from pink to blue late in the game. The real changes are anticipated in the ten-foot-wide maquette; I tried videotaping that process, thinking it might make an informative documentary, but nothing came of it. It was a bit complicated: the middle seven panels were planned first, then money was raised for the large, flanking panels and the ones above the stairs. My first shot at the second panel made it as overpopulated as all the others, and though I like the idea, I felt the viewer needed a rest at some point, and that the protagonist wasn’t always such a social creature.
AB At what point do you find models, and how do they affect the process, especially if the models are people you know?
LP My guess is that the sequence resembles your writing, as I’ve observed your process. First, we seem to need to know where the stage is set, what the place feels and looks like, then we gradually populate it with characters who reveal themselves to us as we go along. The first candidates for the protagonist were in effect southern belles, the kind of perfect young lady who fascinated me when I first came to teach at UVA and who waltzes down the Lawn in Jefferson Dreams. The redheaded model I found was wonderfully awkward, which fit my sense that she would inevitably have setbacks in life, that she was a sort of everyman, or everywoman. I’ve drawn scores of people and only a few have had the right combination of comfort in their bodies, whether graceful or gawky, and the kind of personality that makes it companionable to spend so much time together. Sanity is a must—though I find myself often acting as unpaid therapist, hearing about their troubles. A therapist who pays the patient. When friends model, that adds a layer of meaning for me, even if most viewers won’t share an in joke. I put David Summers in the position of Plato in the central panel, knowing that he sees himself as an arch-Aristotelian. I trust he forgives me.
AB Most people have no idea what went on behind the scenes—how the paintings were physically done, and installed.
LP The timing was odd. We decided to sell our house and leave Charlottesville after living here for ten years, just as Ruth Cross and Don Innes agreed that Cabell needed a mural by me. So I did the 11 panels in Maine, on canvas, traveling back to get information I needed from the site. I didn’t have enough space in my studio to do all of them at once, so I would block in two, roll them up, and return to them when the others had progressed to the same stage. I didn’t see them together until I rented a warehouse. After making adjustments so they worked together, I rolled them up, rented a truck and hired Joe Sansone, who had worked on most of my other commissions, to glue them to the walls. That was nerve-racking, especially when the most architectural panel was glued, permanently, three-quarters of an inch too high, so none of the bricks or balcony horizontals matched. I had to repaint the bricks and balcony railing.
AB Maybe this is an unfair question, but what would you like people to see in the paintings that might not be obvious?
LP When I gave a talk about the mural, someone asked if Lenin shows up in the first panel, and whether his place is taken by a cross-shaped form in the last panel—something like that. I wasn’t just being cagey when I said I was glad if people brought their own interpretations to my work. I don’t sign on to the fashionable idea that the viewer is the real artist, and that we, as writers or painters, don’t really do the heavy lifting. You and I might not generate or control every interpretation, but I want to meet the viewer more than halfway. As I so crudely put it to J. D. O’Hara, there’s a significant difference between fresh deer scat and a Vermeer. We might see the former as metaphoric, evocative, sensational, even powerful, but The View of Delft is a different order of experience. Maybe the latter unfolds over time, rewarding careful viewing, just as Shakespeare’s work bears endless reinterpretation because there is so much there. That doesn’t exactly answer your question.
AB What if someone is overwhelmed by the mural; how should he or she begin to take it in? (I guess this really has to do with how people view paintings in general.)
LP Ideally, I guess we let ourselves be carried into the work as a whole, a gestalt that precedes words. Shut up and look at the painting, as I heard a friend tell her very erudite and verbal husband at an art museum. The musician knows how to structure sound, painters should know how to structure fictive space, but that doesn’t mean the listener or viewer has to be a composer to take it in. I used to think structure, space, the kinds of things that go into conceiving any painting should almost advertise themselves, but when we listen to a symphony, such factors are often subliminal, clear only to practitioners. There’s a modernist bias toward making the means apparent: impressionist brushstroke, cubist building blocks, etc.; but at some point a painter such as myself has to draw a line between marks that convey human character or personality and marks that draw attention to themselves as art. My teachers worked out such boundaries for themselves, always reminding us that form and content were inseparable, and they accepted that people with more hands-on experience of painting would “get” or even care about aspects of their work that others might not. But that isn’t supposed to make people feel inadequate or that they’re missing something. I love Shostakovich string quartets, and I’m not a musicologist. I just listen to them, over and over again. So if there are instructions built into the mural, they’re visual, and probably take time, and repeated exposure, to unfold.
AB Are the different emotions and different reverberations in the various panels something that can be expressed more easily in a multipanel painting than on one canvas?
LP Absolutely. At least for me. Again, symphony versus tone poem; there’s just more canvas. I’ve tried to imply multiple readings in lots of multipanel paintings, even fairly small ones, like the Music of Time series. The possibilities are immense, from the kind of clear temporal sequence you might find in Dürer’s Passion prints to the witty discrepancies in Hogarth’s “progress” series, which seem didactic but contain all sorts of ironic subterfuges. Just as you found in trying to write for movies at Sundance, the visual image carries entirely different freight than the spoken or written word. I don’t hold with the idea that all experience is language-based, and agree with David Summers’s warning that “linguistic imperialists” would have the visual be a subset of language. I don’t know, maybe the relationship between the linguistic signifier and that which is signified is ultimately arbitrary, but is that really true of a painting by Caravaggio, a sculpture by Bernini? Altarpieces often used to have a saint in majesty, timeless and iconic, then below that you’d see a number of little predella panels that told the stories of the saint’s miracles or martyrdom. You needed both; you wanted things brought down to earth, to somehow match the way your world felt, the messy way you knew it to be. The icon made things seem too simple, too taken care of, when you knew how various and frustrating and strange it could all be.
AB At some point you must have thought (those times you weren’t thinking, “Tutto è sistemato!”) about how your finished cycle would fit into the context of other large-scale paintings you admire. There was more than a wry game involved in alluding to things from the School of Athens painting that exists on the flip side, so to speak.
LP The Raphael copy was already there, mounted on the opposite face of the wall that holds my central panel, and I certainly play off that in terms of the poses of what I guess you could call the school of Charlottesville. It is a bit intimidating to be matched against Raphael, but that’s more the way people used to think, both artists and audience. Going down the Grand Canal in Venice, you see a vast conversation. Start at St. Mark’s and head upstream, and every facade responds to every other with tremendous respect, as if saying, “Yeah, I see what you did there, and how about this variation, how about unifying the windows like this, or casting even deeper shadows with a balcony?” Unfortunately, you get to the train station and this joyous conversation turns to a shouting match, with modernist buildings berating rather than complimenting the ones you’ve just motored past in the vaporetto. It’s the collaborative conversation with the past, with artists whose work lives on, that interests me. The sheer quality of our tradition is absolutely mind-boggling. Remember Würzburg, where Tiepolo seems alive and well? He and I wouldn’t share a language, but I hope we could understand what the other was doing in his work. Maybe he would have hired me to grind his paints.
AB Is there anything about the project that seems unfinished?
LP I would dearly love to paint the panels that face the first and last panels. I’ve even made maquettes to let ideas simmer. And, hey, I even walk up the staircases to either side of the murals and fantasize about what those walls might want: certainly images that continue the passage from culture to nature. Additional panels would make the lobby come full circle rather than remaining linear. Time’s cycle versus time’s arrow. Solving those kinds of problems just makes my day; I love it.
AB Remember how great it was to drive around in your convertible that spring night when the painting was finished, delivered, unloaded, and installation about to begin?
LP As I recall, I was pretty nervous about the mounting process, all the things that could (and did) go wrong, but I remember it well. The really great ride was when it was all done, when tutto really was sistemato.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Arturo Herrera and Josiah McElheny, Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray, Lincoln Perry, Anthony Downey and Yinka Shonibare, Eliot Weinberger and Forrest Gander, Lionel Shriver, Noah Baumbach and Jonathan Lethem, George Lewis and Jeff Parker, and David Rabe and Evangeline Morphos.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.