Trevor Winkfield by Maggie Paley

Winkfield 02 Body

Voyager IV, 1997, acrylic on linen, 45½ x 61 inches. All images courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

At first glance, Trevor Winkfield’s paintings, with their competing colors and high level of activity, seem quite jolly—in fact they’re full of wit, but the humor is dark. The colors, upon inspection, are a bit faded. The world is two-dimensional and topsy-turvy. The ceremonially dressed figures are caught off-guard in their attempts to perform mysterious tasks; they’re ambushed by objects and hampered by anatomies gone haywire—legs end in hands, a human head is set on an animal’s body, a torso is actually popsicle sticks. Many of Winkfield’s figures have the faces of classical sculpture; their expressions are pained or dazed. It’s a funny but unsettling universe … similar to our own.

Winkfield was born in Leeds, England, in 1944, and has lived in New York since 1969. Last summer he and I were both at Yaddo. I was finishing a novel, he was making paintings for a book collaboration with John Ashbery titled Faster Than Birds Can Fly. Once I felt we knew each other well enough, I asked him the obvious question: “Where do those images come from, Trevor?”

He fended me off. Back in New York I asked again, more obliquely.

Winkfield 05 Body

Pierrot and Harlequin, 2006, acrylic on linen, 26½ x 38 inches.

Maggie Paley How did growing up in the north of England in the ’40s and ’50s affect who you are now, as a painter?

Trevor Winkfield I didn’t know it at the time, but I was growing up in the so-called Age of Austerity, the immediate postwar period when all of Europe, including England, was totally bankrupt, so it was an incredibly gray and dreary time.

MP The weather or the mood?

TW Well, the houses hadn’t been painted since before the war. Everything was peeling and run-down and that continued right through the late ’50s. But also, as you just noted, the weather was gray and little short of appalling. When I first looked at color—which must have been around the age of eight or nine—it was always bright colors that attracted me.

MP Where did you find color?

TW On postcards, in reproductions, on cinema screens. Color magazine reproductions influenced me a great deal. This was something I only realized in retrospect. I loved the way color sank into cheap paper, creating a slightly bleached-out effect. Especially if you think of reproductions in, say, women’s magazines of the mid-’50s. Another thing that had an enormous visual impact upon me was Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, an incredible medieval pageant full of purple, red, gold, and silver.

MP Where did you see that?

TW I listened to it on the radio and simultaneously enacted it with my teddy bears.

MP Did you play the queen?

TW I refuse to say. Very quickly—I think within about two weeks—there were films released in glorious early ’50s Technicolor and screened at the local cinema.

MP So this is how medieval pomp made its way into your work?

TW Yes, and not only in terms of color, but also the idea of ceremony: people gingerly passing parts of the regalia back and forth and moving very slowly. A lot like Assyrian reliefs or Egyptian wall paintings, as though every act was a ritual.

MP Ron Padgett told me stories about your mother; he said she was very fastidious and always paid her bills right away.

TW I am, too! Fastidious and prompt to a fault … it shows in my paintings.

MP So are you at all spontaneous in making your work?

TW I’m not spontaneous, but I do accept chance into my work, in fact I encourage it. On my work table there’s a lot of chaos: portfolios with papers sticking out, apples, oranges, magazines, books. A slob’s array! The reason I’m telling you this is because out of the corner of my eye I might see a patch of pink from a particular book binding, which will then give me an idea of what my next color should be. Once I overheard two people talking, one telling the other, “You should use more blue,” so of course I went ahead and made some blue paintings shortly thereafter. The moral is: always leave your studio window open.

MP You’re friendly with a lot of poets. Does reading poetry affect your work?

TW It inspires me but not on an image level. It might set the background for a painting, but I’ve never directly culled images or ideas from a particular poem, except when I’ve done collaborative books with poet friends.

MP What do you mean by “set the background”?

TW Reading poetry is a good way to get into the mood to do a painting.

MP Yes, I often read a writer I admire while I’m writing; it makes me feel as if I’m doing something that matters. Do some of your images come from dreams?

TW Not out of dreams, but I was put under light hypnosis about 30 years ago and asked to describe what I was seeing. They were images similar to those in my paintings. Obviously my unconscious is just below the surface and that’s what I’m painting. Although I don’t consider myself a Freudian or a Jungian.

MP What would happen if you were more spontaneous?

TW I was when I was very young and I made a mess.

MP Were you using the kinds of images you use now?

TW Early on, yes, but then I tried to be an abstract painter for a while. The movie The Horse’s Mouth with Alec Guinness, about an English painter—based on John Bratby—showed how he used very thick oil paint, à la Van Gogh. This made me want to be a painter. When I went to art school, I began to paint very thick but within the first week I’d used up my entire semester’s supply of oil paint. So that’s when I began to paint thinner. I thinned the paint with turpentine so much that it just became a wash. This is so pathetic: I used to stay behind at lunchtime and pretend to eat a sandwich but actually I was collecting morsels of paint from everybody’s palette. It was the Age of Austerity.

MP What did you like so much about the thickness of oil paint?

TW Its sensuousness and hint of extravagance.

MP Tell me about heraldry in your work.

TW This also goes back to the coronation; that’s when I first became aware that people once carried shields and that the royal arms were being displayed in every city at that time. What really appealed to me about heraldry was the very graphic shapes; it’s essentially a two-dimensional art, a background with an object placed on top. It also simplified color; there was very little shading, so even a nincompoop like me could begin to understand composition. I’d never quite understood perspective nor, truth be told, do I understand it now. I did and do see the world flatly.

MP What was it about composition that you hadn’t understood before? I’m not even sure I know what composition means in a painting.

TW I don’t think I do. either! I tend to like painters who are nothing like me, like Poussin. His compositions are beyond my understanding. I see things two-dimensionally and he sees things three-dimensionally. My pictorial field is about two inches deep whereas Poussin’s is about four miles thick.

MP But in terms of composition on the flat plane, your paintings seem very complicated.

TW I’m glad you say that. Because to me they seem both very simple and extremely complex. But there are very few overlapping objects in my paintings, which goes back to heraldry. Say a lion is on top of a red background with another figure in front of the lion … .

MP I see something right here on this painting on the table, where this leaf seems to be on top of something.

TW That’s a tree.

MP That’s a tree? It can’t be a tree!

TW Well, I’ve used a simplified leaf to stand as surrogate for the bushiness of the tree. What you’re looking at is actually the tree bark, or my idea of tree bark.

MP The white and green?

TW Unbelievable, I know. But misinterpretations are fine. One of my primary philosophies is actually Duchamp’s somewhat clichéd remark that it’s the spectator who completes the work of art.

MP So tell me more about colors.

TW I have a horrible confession to make. I think I was absent from college when they were talking about color. People talk about complementary colors … now, at the age of 65, I still don’t really understand what that is. I had to invent my own sense of color and composition. I went to a very strict Bauhaus type of college: Leeds. But if you look at my paintings, you’ll understand that I’m not that kind of artist. I grew up as an ornery colorist doing everything wrong. At Leeds, the unofficial motto was: “Some Say God, We Say Ben Nicholson.”

MP I don’t know Ben Nicholson.

TW A mediocre abstract painter from the ’40s and ’50s whose color scheme was based on white, gray, black, pinks—English early winter colors. I was reacting against that.

MP Let’s talk a bit more about ceremony. To the viewer, there is something ceremonious going on in your paintings, but it’s hard to decipher exactly what.

TW Ceremony is still an inspiration. Especially processions—people walking in file, one behind the other, so none of the characters overlap. This goes back to Egyptian wall painting and Assyrian reliefs, of which the Met has several; you know, men carrying handbags and pinecones. I’m not sure if that’s actually what they’re carrying, but men in long cloaks carrying strange objects have always fascinated me. I don’t think you need to penetrate the mystery of what the actual objects are. Somebody was talking about one of my paintings recently and couldn’t understand why there was a man with a fish on his head. Whatever explanation I gave doesn’t really matter. But then, almost as though God was watching, we parted ways and I went to the corner café where there was a man with a cat on his head walking down the street. My friend was out of range so I couldn’t drag him back, but it shows how New York is such a totally crazy city, full of people doing the strangest things.

MP This seems like a good time to talk about your working method. Do you start with one image? And where does that come from?

TW To begin with, I work flat on a kitchen table, which probably seems peculiar considering the scale of some of my canvases. It’s a rickety little table that wobbles. I’ve done a residency at Yaddo twice, and they’ve given me a big table and a big studio and I found myself with my canvas actually toppling over the edge with the rest of the table totally empty. Paging Dr. Freud! I never have an idea of what I’m going to paint next. It’s petrifying. I just go haphazardly from one painting to the next. Often a painting will begin with a very trivial object I want to depict, like a button. So I will paint the button on paper and cut it out. In other words, everything begins with a collage study.

MP Then you put the button down on another piece of paper?

TW Yes. When I say collage, I don’t mean it’s clipped from a newspaper; it’s all painted, though I do cheat by using construction papers for backgrounds. Once I’ve found the background, I have a shape and a color, and I find a third element to go with the first two. It might be anything. For one particular painting I literally came to the table not knowing what I was going to do—a typical, scary moment—and I had some paint containers that I’d used on the previous painting. Little rimmed plastic ones. That gave me the idea of doing a rimmed shape with little decorations around the edge. So I did a drawing of it in black and white, took it to the Xerox parlor and had it Xeroxed on various colored papers. Then I cut these out, and the way they fell on the paper gave me the idea of a halo, which suggested a head beneath. It’s like a Chinese box puzzle; one thing leads to another. If I’m doing a large painting, it might take a month to make a full-size collage. Then I transfer it via tracing paper onto an identically sized canvas, and begin the painting.

MP As you’re making collages, is there a lot of switching things around?

TW Yes, that’s the great thing about collage: the shuffling. In my childhood I had a toy Victorian theater. I cut it out of cardboard and manipulated the characters on the stage from the side using wires. This is very much how I still manipulate my collage elements.

MP It’s a little bit like playing with paper dolls.

TW Only you would think of something like that. (laughter) You know, Mondrian only did a few rough sketches, using the back of cigarette packets to plan his compositions. But if you study X-rays of his actual paintings, he was manipulating things all the time. I’m fastidious, everything has to be settled beforehand. Mondrian, by the way, was a great inspiration when I first started, because he painted very flat and yet very sensuously. If you scrutinize his surfaces, you immediately fall in love with his caressing brushstrokes, the way they go right up to the edge of the next element. It’s delicious. Likewise with Malevich. In reproductions, my paintings can look quite dispassionate. But I try to put as much feeling into my application of paint as possible, just like those two.

Winkfield 07

As Moths to the Flame, 2007, acrylic on linen, 30¾ x 36¾ inches.

MP It’s hard for me to understand what painting with feeling means. Does it mean that you’re tender?

TW Absolutely! Just like writing with feeling.

MP I was actually going to ask you about the place of emotion in your work.

TW I remember being in Richard Hamilton’s studio at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the mid-’60s; he was working on a reconstruction of Duchamp’s Large Glass for an upcoming retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London. He was painting the three cloud-like draft pistons at the top, but he was painting them from behind as Duchamp must have done. And he was painting them so sensuously, as though he were Renoir painting a nude’s flesh tones. I think that’s one reason why some of us become painters—because we love the tactility of it.

MP What about your figures? How do you arrive at them?

TW I originally studied to be a sculptor. I was a sculptor-cum-painter. In college I used to sculpt figures influenced by those of Kenneth Armitage, who was a major English sculptor of the ’50s. I constructed big bulky figures supported by very thin, unstable legs—which is why I’m no longer a sculptor. One day as I was making one of these—I’m talking about several tons of wet clay on the body resting on thin wiry legs coated with a thin clay skin—the whole sculpture slowly buckled and capsized on top of me, trapping me underneath. I had to be dragged out by my fellow students! So I took this as a sign from the Sculpture God that I should not be a three-dimensional artist. But how did sculpture eventually influence me? You didn’t ask, but I’m going to tell you nonetheless.

MP Please.

TW I think it’s because making collages is a form of sculpture.

MP Aha, okay. But back to your figures—your human, or somewhat human, figures: do they represent anything to you?

TW No, but I think they all project a mood, if you stay with them. And they’re often very confrontational, especially in my earlier work. So they might stand in their own space, but they do relate to each other.

MP A lot of them seem to be in trouble.

TW Well, some of them are, and some are in pain. But I think I’ve moved beyond that phase. My more recent figures are more convivial. But one of my real heroes early on—still, at least for his early work—was Francis Bacon. One of the major early Bacons from about 1946 ended up in a tiny art gallery/library in Batley, about 10 miles from where I grew up. And I used to make little pilgrimages to see it, uphill and down dale, on my father’s bicycle, and of course it was the most horrible and crouched screaming figure you could imagine.

MP Your figures aren’t quite crouched and screaming. I wonder, is what you’re doing more or less an antic version of Eric Fischl?

TW Well, I think I feel closer to Balthus than to Fischl—the kind of sly leer you would get in a Balthus painting.

MP Now tell me about the years 1967–1975 when you stopped painting.

TW I painted very occasionally, for friends’ birthdays. I don’t think I did more than five or six paintings during that period. I didn’t know how to paint the paintings I wanted to paint, so I was totally flummoxed. So what happened? I became a “writer.” I wasn’t a particularly good one, but unconsciously I was writing descriptions of the paintings that I wasn’t yet technically qualified to paint.

MP How did you become qualified to paint them?

TW In 1975 I saw the Richard Tuttle retrospective at the Whitney Museum, and about six months after that, I was visiting my parents back in England. I bought a sketchbook and I was doing little abstract doodles like Tuttle’s, which quickly turned into abstract scrubbing brushes, shovels, and chandeliers. Very soon after that, I became a “realist” painter. I started making small paintings, particularly very simple scenes, like a mouth of a cave blocked off with wooden bars. About two weeks after that, I was working on small compositions, somewhat larger in size, but still small enough to fit in the bottom of my suitcase when I returned to New York a month after that.

Winkfield 08

Entrance to the Feather Hive, 2007, acrylic on linen, 31×34 inches.

MP Are you serious when you say you’re a realist painter?

TW Absolutely. I think of myself as a realist painter, but I must say that a lot of my friends consider me an abstract painter. In fact, there’s a famous occasion, at least amongst my friends, when Rudy Burkhardt—after I asked him which of my paintings he’d liked at a recent exhibition—described one purely in abstract terms. I mean, it might have been a man with a fork through his nose. But Rudy described it as the one with a red circle in the upper left corner, with a bit of blue coming out of it, and there was something like a white ladder on the lower left corner. But he didn’t describe it as the actual realist scene that I thought it was. For him, it was a purely formal exercise.

MP So, what about the influence of Raymond Roussel?

TW Well, that was another entry back into painting, because from 1970-72 I translated Roussel’s essay “How I Wrote Certain of My Books.” By doing so I finally began to understand there were many other ways to put together a painting than the simple ones I already knew. For instance, one of the many highly ingenious constraints Roussel devised to construct his works was to begin and end a story with sentences that may have sounded the same, but actually had totally different meanings. During the course of the story he had to cleverly bring together these two totally different ideas—in other words, to reconcile the irreconcilable. One of the most famous examples of this device was used to “sandwich” his 1900 story “Chiquenaude,” which began with the sentence:

Les vers (The lines of the verse) de la doublure (of the understudy) dans la piece (in the play) du Forban Talon Rouge (of Red Heel the Buccaneer);

and ended with the sentence:

Les vers (The worms) de la doublure (in the lining) de la piece (of the patch) du fort pantalon rouge (of the heavy red trousers).

You can imagine the bizarre plot twists induced by sticking to this procedure, which often involved inventing strange machines to carry out hitherto impossible tasks. This is an aspect of Roussel that particularly attracted Duchamp (and myself): the birth of machines via language, much like Duchamp compiling notes in his Green Box so he could eventually build Large Glass. And of course it’s very closely linked to surrealist stream-of-consciousness, where one idea flows imperceptibly into another.

MP You mentioned that you don’t mind having your paintings hung upside-down.

TW Absolutely. In fact, the first reproduction I ever had was in Art in America, it was wrong way round and upside down, and it still looked good!

MP You read journals and diaries from the 18th century, and you love Chardin’s peacefulness. Is that sense of peace what you want to give your own paintings?

TW I tend to like things, books, painters, and sculptors that are nothing like myself. I like my opposites.

MP Do you deliberately avoid sentimentality in your work?

TW One of the artists I admire very much was the late Scottish artist and concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay. Something I learned from Finlay is that if you imagine your creative life is balanced on a tightrope, you can easily topple over into bathos, sentimentality, or melodrama. But you can keep your balance and just hint at those things. That’s what I’m trying to achieve. One almost falls off the wire … but one doesn’t.

MP I’m asking because most of what I myself write is comic. I wonder what I’m avoiding by being comic. I think maybe I’m just not very good at anything else.

TW Well, I think we all, especially painters, work in a very narrow range. It’s not like being a musician or a poet, both of whom have this vast emotional vocabulary to call upon. Take Bacon: he mined a very limited range of emotions but they went very deep.

MP You said in your article on Chardin, “The illustration of stability is Chardin’s moral code.” What’s your moral code?

TW Any artist has to be true to an individual vision and just plod away at it whether others approve or not, decade after decade. In other words, don’t work for the market. Ultimately, I think every creative act is a moral choice. Pictorially, your brush has to tell the truth as you see it. You can’t fudge, you can’t lie to the canvas. So much art in the last 40 years has just been churned out for the market. How can one tell? You can’t define it in words. But if you’ve been going round to galleries for over 50 years as I have, you can tell what’s genuine, just by looking.

MP But you couldn’t say why?

TW It’s got nothing to do with personal taste. If something’s not to my taste I can simply doff my cap in admiration and move on. There was a younger painter I visited a couple of years ago who said, “I want my dealer to jack up my prices so I can afford to buy a condo.” If you looked at his paintings, you could tell this was the sole reason for his being a painter. He was looking and talking at me while he was painting, multi-tasking. His mind was not on the painting, and it showed.

MP I once knew a painter in Mexico who hired other people to fill in the outlines he’d painted on the canvas.

TW Right, that’s another clue. Is it done by the artist or do you have this sneaking suspicion that it was done by one of his ten assistants? I saw a show of quite a well-known artist who was having a retrospective in Spain about six or seven years ago; someone whose work I used to like in the 1970s. The retrospective contained around 200 pieces and halfway through my tour I realized something had gone dreadfully wrong, something was missing. I went back to his middle-period paintings, and I said, This must be when he got the assistants! The feeling had gone out of the paint surface—I call it the Chagall effect. At a certain point—especially in America—artists just begin to churn out work. They find a formula and begin to make products. And laugh all the way to the bank.

MP You said the other day that British art is the art of comment, whereas American art is the art of statement. Can you expand on that?

TW Well, things have changed in England since I left, especially in the last 20 years, but essentially I think English painting at its best is a small-scale art.

MP Do you mean the canvases?

TW Yes. And much more modest in ambition. I think it has to do with landscape. Europeans live on such a small-scale continent. I had a show in Erie, Pennsylvania last fall, and for various reasons I took the bus. It took me ten hours to get there. And if you look on the map, it’s basically next to New York. Those big empty spaces in America are frightening for Europeans. It’s the kind of landscape only Americans can feel comfortable in.

MP Who are your favorite artists?

TW Well, in terms of 20th century artists, I’d start with Duchamp and Braque. One is very cerebral, the other is very sensual. But a lot of my early influences can be traced to medieval art; painters like Giovanni di Paolo, Sassetta, and Paolo Uccello, who was very involved, in his San Romano battle pieces, with the idea of processions. In this sense they are hardly battle pieces, more like tournaments. I was very struck by their heightened color schemes—the Sienese more than the Florentines. I can trace my original interest in medievalism back to my childhood in Leeds, where I had a 12th century Cistertian Abbey as a playground, a mile and a half from where I lived.

MP So it was like a haunted house? Could you go in?

TW Yes! It was one of the ruins that Oliver Cromwell knocked about a bit, as they say. It had been demolished by Henry VIII, and then, I think, sacked by Cromwell’s Puritans.

MP How does architecture figure in your work?

TW There’s a lot of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal work going on, and it all derives from architecture. Which is another of my great passions.

MP Are there any contemporary architects who interest you?

TW None. The last one who really interested me was Corbusier; he knew how to manipulate space. His Cambridge Center for the Visual Arts looks, from the front, quite ordinary, indeed boring. But if you walk around the back, every step you take, the space and the relationship of element to element changes.

MP And in your painting, every step you take, the space changes?

TW Everything changes. I remember one dealer coming to see me in the mid-’80s. He was being very complimentary, although it sounds like a put-down, when he noted, “I love your painting, but I never know where I am in it.” It was a casual remark that set me off in another direction. That’s when I began to turn my paintings upside down and realized they worked just as well.

MP What about all those stalks and ears of corn, or is it wheat, that turn up in your work?

TW There are various objects like corn and fish that do turn up in my paintings with some regularity. But they don’t have any deep symbolic meaning. It’s almost like a writer using a comma or a full stop or an exclamation point. It’s part of your vocabulary.

MP Do you mix your colors?

TW Yes, all my colors are mixtures. I never use anything straight from the tube. There are often at least five colors mixed together to get a simple red. And every color has a bit of white and a bit of black in it. Including the blacks, which have white in them, and the whites have a tiny tinge of black in them.

MP Why is that?

TW So no single color disrupts the paint surface. Everything becomes slightly subdued with the addition of black and white. Speaking of color, the introduction of acrylic paint in the mid-’60s had a huge influence on my generation. If you compare any painting done before 1965, before acrylic, even Matisse looks tame in comparison to the colors you could attain thanks to acrylic. Another huge influence was the Skira art books from the ’50s, with their overly lush color reproductions. If you didn’t know the paintings, that’s what made them so beautiful, though Picasso and Braque hated what it did to their palettes.

MP You said something the other night about the progress of modern painting being one toward heightened color.

TW People have said that 20th century music was a progression toward noise and loudness, and I’m sure a lot of people agree that the progress of 20th century painting is largely a movement towards loudness, but in terms of color.

MP What about the future of painting?

TW Even when I was growing up, I think painting was considered old hat. When I first started painting, Happenings had already taken off. But you can get things from painting that you can’t get from anywhere else. I hate to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but people don’t travel thousands of miles to museums to watch videos. I’ve made long journeys just to look at one painting. Four or five years ago I flew to Atlanta for the day because the Pushkin Museum in Moscow sent Cézanne’s painting Pierrot and Harlequin, which I’ve always loved in reproduction, and I knew I was not about to go to Moscow. If you travel that far, you’d better look really intently. And it’s as well to have lunch beforehand so you’re totally fortified and in a good mood prior to scrutiny. I looked at that painting almost exclusively for two hours solid. I made endless notes about it and looked at every centimeter of the surface. Would you concentrate that much on a video? I don’t think so, unless you were the person who made it. So I don’t think it’s all over for painting.

Maggie Paley is the author of Bad Manners, a novel; The Book of the Penis, nonfiction; Elephant, a chapbook of sestinas; and many magazine articles and book reviews.