#03: Betye Saar

SKOWHEGAN INTERVIEW PROJECT 

For the third edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project, Don Edler (‘12) spoke with 1985 Resident Faculty Artist Betye Saar during her return to campus as visiting artist in 2014. 

1985 class photo

1985 class photo

Don Edler: Do you want to start off?

Betye Saar: Yes—my name is Betye Saar I’m visiting Skowhegan from Los Angeles, I was a faculty member here in 1985. 

It has been 29 years since I was last here, so I thought I would talk about memory. Like the ease of forgetting and the effort to recall, and how that’s working for me in this experience here at Skowhegan. 

In the summer of 1985, probably late June, I might have been teaching at that time, when I finished up my obligations in Los Angeles, I took a plane from Los Angeles and flew to Boston and then from Boston, after a bit of a wait, I flew to Portland and then from Portland I took a very small plane to Bangor, the flight was very bumpy. It was a storm. It was a rather horrendous experience. 

As I recall I got to Skowhegan late in the evening and at that time, I don’t know if they still do it now, but if you’re going to be a faculty or a student, you had to bring all your bedding as well as your clothing and so forth. So I had this big duffle bag of sheets and towels as well as my suitcase. The house that I was assigned was one of the things that made me think about how I wanted to talk about my experience. In 29 years, things change. 

Zorach Cabin, 1985. Image courtesy Betye Saar.

My effort to recall this experience was because my daughter Allison and I were walking along one of the roads down by the lake the other day and I recognized the back door. The back door was one of the few that opened to the yard. Most of them now have steps leading up to them, to enter or to exit. It was a small backyard and now there are trees, because in 29 years trees grow. What I remember about that yard was that it had strange wildflowers. There was a flower that was like a little Johnny Pop-Ups, dark color, really pretty. The other reason I recognized the backdoor is that it overlooked a house in the back that belonged to another faculty member. I think it was the person that taught fresco. There was a couple that lived there. 

Betye Saar, 1985.

One of the things that I do when I can’t sleep at night, when I have insomnia, is try to think about the houses I’ve lived in, what the room placement was, where the windows were, and I go into more detail the less I can sleep. So I was trying to do that exercise. You enter the back door into a small kitchen and maybe there was a table. I remember the sink area and the cupboards. I remember one time we left something out and it attracted a mouse so I had to put a little trap out to catch the mouse and throw it away. Then there was a hall that you would go down and that was the bathroom. It had a tub with a shower attachment, then you would go to another very narrow bedroom which I kind of used for a studio. It had one window at the outside wall and a narrow cot so it could also serve as a bedroom. The hall ended in the front bedroom that was right on the shore of the lake. That’s the other thing I remember about it. It didn’t really hang out, because it was on land, but you couldn’t really walk around the house from that part. There were rocks around it, and water, and you could hear the lake lapping so that made a nice sound. Going back the other way, there was a small front yard of rugged grass and a small little step, not really a porch, not really a sitting porch but a platform to enter.  You came into the living room and there were windows on the front and windows on the side. I thought it was a fireplace, it might have been a wood burning stove, but I like wood burning stoves or fireplaces so I remember that part. There were pillows and a couch and it was very comfortable. Behind that was another bedroom. And I slept in all of them. I would just move around. “Oh I need more air. I want to hear the lake” and then I had visitors, Alison and my other daughter Tracy came up and stayed a while. Alison had just gotten married, so she went back to New York to Tom, and Tracy stayed with me and we took a little trip to Bar Harbor just driving across Maine to see what it looked like. We were always hunting and gathering for materials. 

There were some wonderful old dilapidated buildings that had been bookshops for a hundred years and there was always something in the basement, like handmade books, and things like that. I remember finding some wonderful books and old photographs and things, and there were good places to eat and so forth. 

My job was to visit students. I didn’t like the schedule because it meant I had to see people early and I’m not an early morning person, but it was okay. I saw all the students, because you have to see every single one when you’re here as full-time faculty. I had a very nice faculty studio. I kind of remember that. You entered from the front and it had a nice wall that went around and there were windows on either side. I did an installation called, Wood and Object, I think. But it was all the wooden objects that I had found like picture frames and all the wooden things that people had made, because I’m attracted to naive art, handmade art, not uneducated but self-taught artists. 

So that’s what I was looking for, and Maine, at least at that time, had a lot of that. In the other century at least, in the 1900s and so forth, women took sewing and cooking and men took mechanics and woodworking, so there were lots of things that guys in high school had made in wood shop and things like that, so that’s what I was looking for. Later on I did an installation at the Pennsylvania Academy called Strangers and Souvenirs about all the different things I had found in different places. But mostly handmade souvenirs. 

DE: What do you think attracts you to those kinds of objects?

Saar at Red Farm, 1985.

Saar at Red Farm, 1985.

BS: I think because I’m a child of the depression, and back then many things were made rather than purchased. Like clothing: my mother was a seamstress so many of our clothes were handmade. And also as a kid I was attracted to strange kinds of architectural venues, like in the ‘30s, if a place sold ice cream they’d have an ice cream cone as a building or if it was a camera shop it would have been built in little camera. There’s a book about that. 

DE: Yeah, Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi talks about that. 

BS: Yeah. They were like secret fairy tale places. My grandmother lived in Watts so I saw the Simon Rodia building the Watts Towers and that was a really strong influence—not that I ever got up close enough to see it. But my grandmother’s house was on one street and we had to walk down the railroad tracks to go in the city and run her errands, and to see him building these strange structures, I don’t know it just touched something in me. Not that I dislike other kinds of paintings, but that’s just where that imprint came, witnessing that. 

DE: I can relate to that - I feel that I make sculptures, if I were being really honest with myself, primarily because I enjoy making things. I like working with my hands. It’s something I learned from my dad growing up: he taught me how to build things in our garage, and that’s always stuck with me. I wonder about you, is it the building of the things and the tactile experience of making objects or is it the finding the things?

BS: It’s the collecting and the recycling. I didn’t know about assemblages until I saw Joseph Cornell’s work and that was the 70s. You know, I didn’t even know that existed as an art form. 

DE: But you were already collecting before that?

BS: I was a printmaker and starting to do a kind of assemblage by putting prints in the windows. 

DE: Were you collecting objects?

BS: Only the stuff in my house because we didn’t have a lot of money. I remember going to a really fantastic estate yard sale out in the valley, a man and his wife had had a photographic business in downtown Los Angeles and they never threw away anything. There were boxes of shirts they’d never worn and all sorts of things they collected and it was just stuff. So I bought a lot of that stuff. And Pasadena, California is my hometown so we were interested in going to the flea market there, and a flea market anywhere. There was one in West Hollywood where I lived. It was always about the hunt—sometimes it was about something personal that you find, like a scarf or jewelry or something but every once in a while you find something that somebody made. And I know that Maine had a lot of that. Places where it is kind of unpleasant in the wintertime, that’s one of the things you do. Women knit or guys make picture frames, you have to do something with your hands. Always looking and seeking, hunting and gathering, it’s one of our favorite occupations. Alison’s really good at it because she checks the paper every week and then we go out and find stuff. A lot of times we see nothing—not that it’s nothing, it’s just not something we collect—we don’t collect dishes or furniture. We collect collectables, whatnots, useless stuff, stuff that has a memory to it; that’s why I like the handmade things. I can feel the energy of the hands making the thing, even if I don’t know them. 

DE: I think that’s a really important aspect of the art object, when it is handmade. It’s a quality that I look for and I enjoy. I’m not such a big fan of ultra-finished work that tries to remove the hand.

BS: Or some very popular artists today, they have like fifteen assistants. They make a sketch, they send it to their studio in China and they paint it. And it’s nothing. It’s sterile when you look at it. I like to see the brushstroke, even if it’s a smooth finish. Because you know the artists worked really hard to get that finish, and even if it’s a sloppy finish. It’s something that shows that there’s a human contact to the thing. 

DE: Human contact. I like that.

BS: And then taking it from that, and building that energy, I recycle it to claim it. I combine it with something else or I paint it or I take the finish off and then that becomes the conversion or the manipulation.

DE: Transformation.

BS: Yeah, the imagination, the imagination is first in the selection and the recycling of it, or the manipulation of the surface. Or combining, and the other part of the ritual, because I think about it as kind of a ritual, the hunting and gathering, the manipulation, or releasing it. Sometimes it’s for an exhibition or some gift or something else. And then you just kind of let go.

DE: Can you talk a little bit about the role of the imagination?

BS: I’ve always had a really strong imagination. I loved fairytales and when I learned how to read those were always the kinds of books that I liked. I don’t particularly like science fiction, but I do like things that twerk the imagination. Unfortunately now I don’t read many books but I like short stories, because that’s the only time I have, to read a short story. Because a book will seduce you and you can’t do anything until you finish it. 

DE: It’s a funny problem.

Betye Saar (b.1926)
Black Girl's Window, 1969
assemblage in window
35 3/4" x 18" x 1 1/2", signed and dated
Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

BS: Yeah. But I love books. I have books displayed in my house, especially art books, where I just have them open to a page, and I’ll walk by and turn three or four pages or I’ll sit down.

I’ll talk a little bit about the books I have open. One is by an artist named Radcliffe Bailey. When I saw his work at the High Museum in Atlanta, I said “Oh my God, we speak the same language!” because he uses photographs, he uses memory, he uses ritual. So I got his catalog and I have it open so I can say “let me see what’s here.” That’s one of the artists who kind of influences me, just to see in a way that we’re kindred spirits. And then underneath him I have a really large sized book: old charts on astrology and the sky and old legends and nice big pictures of the sun and the sky and all the gods and goddesses that pertain to the sky.

DE: Yeah, you’ve used astrology a lot in your work.

BS: I started out when I was a printmaker. As a child I was always interested in the palmistry hand because during that time in the ’30s, gypsies roamed and they would always come to parks in South Pasadena and have their family conventions there. Of course in the last ten or fifteen years, the palmistry sign is everywhere and everyone is a psychic now, but during that time it, because they weren’t very well liked, or not trusted I guess, they had to keep moving, otherwise they would get run out of town or threatened or something. So I’ve always had that attraction for the palmistry chart. Where I live in Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, and during that time, a lot of hippies were living there, and that was where we lived, and we went to love-ins at the park and dressed in long skirts and cannabis was growing in the back hill, and that was the life. And also in that life was an interest in metaphors, and an interest in palmistry and telling your fortune. “What’s your sign, man?” That still has a realm but it was really, really prevalent then. 

So I started looking for books about that, and there were very few printed. There were some old, old books that had been reprinted but then I liked the idea of using them in my work, and using them graphically. With my piece "Black Girl’s Window" the top frame is about that, about the moon and the sun and the stars and how important they are with astrology and telling you what your destiny is like. 

I never really got into it where I wanted to tell fortunes, other than just my own intuition about people and signs, because that’s always changing. But as you learn more about astronomy you learn that the stars are important, the moon is important, that the oceans’ tide really makes a difference to the planet and things like that. It’s not just some crazy cult like thing.

DE: It makes sense—we evolved to live on this planet and adapted to live in this environment and the moon is part of our environment. It affects us. I believe that, totally.

BS: Yeah. It does. Because when we haven’t had any rain, I get excited when it’s starting to rain. Of all the celestial bodies, I think the Moon is my favorite. When I haven’t seen the Moon, I’m like “What’s wrong? I haven’t seen the Moon in a week.” The Imagination is something that’s clicking all the time, just clicking all the time. Like for this talk, I was just walking around looking for the house I was in and I got the idea of talking about memory and how difficult it is. And how easy it is to forget. You have to do research. You have to look at papers. You have to look at old calendars, and just how much effort it is to recall something that you forgot just like that. (snaps)

DE: I think about that too but at the same time I think about how it can be really difficult to forget things if you want to forget them, something that you don’t want to remember. 

Betye Saar (b.1926)
I'll Bend But I Will Not Break, 1998
vintage ironing board and iron installation
80" x 96" x 36", signed and dated
Credit Line: Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

BS: But then it gets into emotion. It’s an emotional kind of thing. You want to forget something bad, or something that you thought was stupid or something that somebody said to you that hurt your feelings. More than forgetting, it’s easy to forget, but then to forgive, you’re not really ready to forgive, so you keep remembering it. So you get the emotional complications of it. 

DE: That’s a good point

BS: But back to my experience. So I had my little studio, and I was collecting these wooden things, hunting and gathering, and maybe I made some drawings and some paintings. Oh and I loved birch bark. I’d never been to a place where the woods were so plentiful so I kept collecting all this bark, and painting all this bark. At home in my studio I still have some bark from 1985. 

DE: Wow, that’s old bark. (laughs)

BS: I know! It was just too good to throw away, to leave behind. The students that I remember, I remember more students than I can recall their names. Names are the easiest thing to forget. 

DE: That happens. Yesterday you were talking about the work, your own work, that you keep around the house. You talked about I’ll Bend but I will not break.

BS: Oh yes, that came from the political series, which came before my visit to Skowhegan, because it really was hinged on the murder, or assassination, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The series started in the ‘60s, with my hunting and my gathering, I would come across these derogatory images, like postcards or salt and pepper shakers or cookie jars, so I just started collecting those. But then after Martin Luther King Jr., I just had this anger that was just overwhelming, and things were really bad in South Africa and it just seemed so horrible the way blacks were treated. And when I found this Aunt Jemima notepad, I was visiting a friend in Berkeley and we went to a flea market in Alameda, really big flea market, bigger than the one in the Rose Bowl I think, and I found this little metal figure of a mammy, an aunt Jemima, and there’s an indentation for a notepad and a place to hold the pencil, and people would hang these up in their kitchen. And I think I was talking about how Slavery had been abolished but still these derogatory images, slave-like images, were put in your kitchen, in your front yard to hold your horse, or to amuse you while doing something like cracking nuts or maybe functioning as a coin bank or something. And I said, I can change that. I can use Aunt Jemima. She’s going to be against the war of Racism. So I gave her a rifle, and in the pad in the center I put a postcard I found of a Mammy with a white baby. So I said, the baby’s skin is white but the features are negroid. So I said, this postcard is something else, this is about something else, it’s about the sexual victimization of the black woman. She belonged to the masters, so that’s the way that went, that piece is called The Liberation of Aunt Jemima

That piece started off a series that recycled derogatory images. At the time I liked to make these little tabloids, something on the wall. For the piece you asked about, I found this wonderful wooden ironing board, and on it I superimposed a diagram of a slave ship, and an iron, it was like an old fashioned iron, not an electric iron, an old fashioned iron that you have to heat on the stove. I also used an image of a woman ironing. That piece is called I’ll bend but I will not break. So that was like my philosophy about coping with racism. You’re not going to surrender to it, you’re going to keep fighting against it. 

Betye Saar and Alison Saar (F '93) giving a lecture in 2014.

Betye Saar and Alison Saar (F '93) giving a lecture in 2014.

DE: You gave that wonderful lecture the other day and you focused it around Black Girl’s Window and I was wondering if you could talk about how you decided to focus on that piece.

BS: I chose that piece because each panel has a story to tell, like my interest in metaphysic and palmistry and magic and there is a panel about my family. In this way I was able to talk about my family a little bit and show some art from them. I talked about death being in the center, and it wasn’t until I started thinking about that talk, and saying “Why is death in the middle?” that I thought, well, it reminded me of when my dad died. Death is always with us even when we’re alive, not that we have to think about it all the time, certainly when we’re children we don’t do that. 

Even last night when I think about my costume for the costume ball, people asked, “What’s your title? what’s your name?” and I said “Madame Mort”. People probably think, “Man that chick talks about Death all the time.” I think about it maybe because I’m older, in the last few decades of my life, and it’s not that I anticipate it or dwell on it, I know i’m blessed because I’m in really good health, have good energy. So I guess that’s why death is in the center. Everything starts out from that. Or everything ends up at that. Maybe that’s more positive. Everything that surrounds it, ends up right there. Everything we love is gonna die. *Laughs*

DE: (laughs) That’s a little dark, that’s pretty dark I would say.

BS: But it’s true. And I don’t see it as darkness because that’s why it’s important to make something really beautiful, to do something really beautiful in your life. So you leave and you leave a beautiful memory. And that’s a positive thing. 

DE: Absolutely.

BS: I think about my great aunt who was 94 when she died and I think of her vagueness. She was an adult, she wasn’t demented or anything, but I kept thinking there was a song that an old time singer sang, Peggy Lee, saying “Is that all there is?” and I think a lot of people end up like that when they’re in a hospital bed and they have a lucid moment and they say “Is this the way I’m gonna go out?” I always think of my life as a spiral, and some parts will overlap where the spiral overlaps, but it continues going around and around. It probably gets smaller and smaller instead of larger and larger. It causes me to think about, “Is this what I want to leave behind?” What is it that I want to do with my life?” and most people aren’t blessed with a gift, artists have the creative gift, they are really super blesses, whether music or words or art or whatever. The fact that you leave something behind, even if the viewer doesn’t know the artist, they still are inspired or impressed or enjoy what was left behind. 

DE: I feel really grateful that I get to make art and one thing that is important to me about it is that it’s sort of a constant searching or learning process about myself. I’m learning about myself which is probably the biggest mystery in my life, understanding myself. 

BS: Sometimes I do something, and I think this is another reason I chose Black Girl’s Window, because sometimes I reinterpret things. I look at my work, or someone else’s work and I think “Then why this? Why this picture here?”  In that piece, I have the phrenology chart, which is I guess my interest in “other” in ”outside” in the unknown. and the more I thought about it, I thought “I’m gonna use that image for inspiration” for ideas, for thoughts- thought that you don’t know until they happen to you but it’s all in your head somewhere. So they start fitting but when I made this I didn’t think about that. The only thing I thought about, underneath the death pane is a tintype of a white woman. And for me that symbolizes part of my unknown personal history. My grandmother was Irish, but that history is cloudy. 

DE: That’s what was so great about your lecture, that piece sort of encapsulates all different modes of working and interests and moments in your life also, because there’s an overlap. And I think it’s concise in that way and it’s also just a great piece.

BS: Thank you. So you had one more question? 

DE: The last question, and you started touching on it a little bit, but what do you think about your legacy?

BS: We kind of touched on that. The legacy of maybe creating something, I mean, the phrase “unforgettably beautiful” is a pretty high goal. (laughs)

DE: Ok, We can use that. (laughs)

Betye Saar (b.1926)
The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972
mixed media assemblage
11 3/4" x 8" x 2 3/4", signed
Collection of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum; purchased with the aid of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (selected by The Committee for the Acquisition of Afro-American Art). Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY. Photograph by Joshua Nefsky.

BS: But The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, because it also was timing too, because it was a piece that started out with anger and trying to gain power from pain that it kind of fit in with the civil rights movement, certainly with women’s rights and the feminist movement. That became one of the icons, every time there’s a feminist show that’s gonna be in it. Especially for black women. Maybe about 4, 5 years ago Angela Davis spoke at the museum of contemporary art in Los Angeles. And she stood up and she said, “The black women’s movement began with Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” Whoa was I high after that. But that’s what that image is about. But it’s also about all black people, or people of color, or anyone who’s been repressed. Because first there’s the civil rights movement for black people, and then it’s moved on to gay rights, and now it’s moved on to transgender rights, so, you know. 

DE: Yeah it set a really important precedent.

BS: Because people really want freedom. I think that’s my legacy. I think my legacy is that piece, Black Girl’s window.

DE: Yeah I think it’s a good combination. Like I was saying yesterday. I think you were touching on this a little earlier but now I’m really curious: would you be able to, or willing to, talk a little bit about how you made The Liberation of Aunt Jemima? Or how it came together? 

BS: I found the little plaque thing, the kitchen plaque, at a flea market in Alameda, and then I had also found the postcard of the mammy holding the mulatto baby not at the same time, but during that time, also, at the Olympics that year two of the black athletes I think they were runners, they held up the black fists, so that had to be at the center of it, because that symbolized black power. And further, she has a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other, and I’m not a violent person, I don’t love guns or anything like that, but that was a symbol of a weapon, to suggest a weapon for civil rights. And people understand guns. They don’t understand people talking and talking and talking. There’s no such thing as a peaceful transaction about getting your civil rights. 

DE: So you had already been collecting at that point, right? 

BS: Yeah, I probably had the postcard already. And then behind it, I made a collage of Aunt Jemima pancake flour, which is no longer an ugly black woman, but it is a brown woman, and it’s a commercial, the commercialization of the black woman, and the bottom references cotton fields, like rising up out of the cotton fields, because slaves were mostly used in outside work: cotton fields, working for labor, whatever.  If you werea field person, you were the lowest one, or you worked in the house, which was a kind of step up from outside work. It’s interesting because that’s where black people found out how white people lived: about another way of cooking, another way of dressing, another kind of etiquette and of course other languages. That was really an educational process. A painful educational process, but still. Because those are the people who later on were able to go to college, were able to go to school, were able to learn how to write because it was illegal to write your name. Or to write anything. Or to read anything. It was illegal. So it’s all very interesting.

DE: You collect these things, and you make these narratives.

BS: And I make an object. Or a collage. But mixed media is my thing. Not just painting, not just sculpture. I like to mix it up. The holistic approach. I try to live my life that way. I try to accept the physical and the mental and the spiritual. 

 

#02: Jennie C. Jones

Skowhegan Interview Project

For the second edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project, Don Edler (‘12) spoke with Alumnus (‘96) and Resident Faculty (‘14) Jennie C. Jones just before she left for Maine in early June.

Skowhegan Class of 1996

Don Edler: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me - It must be exciting to be going back to Skowhegan as resident faculty, how are you feeling as you prepare to leave for the summer?

Jennie C. Jones: I can’t wait to get out of here next week. I don’t think I’ve been up there since 2001.

DE: What were you doing up there that time?

JJ: Unfortunately, I was working at Creative Capital Foundation and they did their very first artist retreat at Skowhegan. I say “unfortunately” because I had only been in New York for five years and Skowhegan still felt like this fantasy experience— like a feather in my cap. At Creative Capital I was an arts administrator handing out memos to other artists who got huge grants and I’m there holding a clipboard and telling everyone where their room is.DE: I guess that must have been a bummer.

JJ: It was weird. Definitely weird.

DE: I might be going back this summer for the next edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project. I think that will be weird for me too, even though it’s only been two years.

JJ: There’s such a weight to the concept that “it’s a once in a lifetime experience.” You’re like “oh my god I can never go back unless I’m teaching or lecturing which means I have to get it together so that someday I can return.”

DE: I picked up a guy who at the time I didn’t know, Jean Jacques du Plessis, in Boston on my drive up. He was a participant also, and we spent the five-hour drive talking about all themyths that surrounded Skowhegan.

JJ: The mythology around Skowhegan; I’m curious.

DE: I guess the big thing is the idea that people go there and go nuts for nine weeks. That was the story I had always heard. Everyone told me they just drank a lot, and partied a lot and didn’t get any work done.

JJ: Wow.

DE: Was that the same rumor or was it different in ‘96?

JJ: I think it was a little bit different. I have some mixed feelings about how Skowhegan lives in the world now, which is really just me being nostalgic. It used to feel like the Skull and Bones of the art world. I like that weirdness. It was somewhere in Maine. It was awesome if you could go, a privilege just to get in, and you didn’t have to pay for it if you had a matching institution. It also had such a heavy tie to legacy in a different way than MacDowell or Ox-Bow. It just felt more “New England”, which is why the Skull and Bones reference makes a little sense. 

Though I did hear it was like sex camp. I didn’t hear much about partying, but maybe that was the assumption. I heard that crazy affairs happen with people sneaking out in the woods. If you have a partner before you go, they’re going to be worried about what’s going to happen when you’re out there. It was the most boring, non-sexy experience for me. I was so disappointed. Man, I didn’t even make out when I was there. That sucks.

DE: That sort of Skull and Bones mystique is really accurate.

I remember having this assumption that it was a ticket into the art world, in the same way they used to talk about Yale. Skowhegan was supposed to be even more so than that. I feel crazy ever believing that, but it still holds that mystique for people who have never been. Everyone has that story of someone who met the right person or did really well afterwards, but for most people it’s a great experience and it’s great for your practice but it’s not going to give you overnight success.

Jones dressed as a Hershey Kiss at the ‘96 Skowhegan Costume Ball

Jones dressed as a Hershey Kiss at the ‘96 Skowhegan Costume Ball

JJ: Right. Like you’re somehow going to share a ride with ten amazing rockstar painters that you just met, and you’re all going to move to New York and be picked up by major galleries.

I don’t know if there’s a big difference between ‘96 and now. There were definitely career-hungry types but most people tend to apply when someone they admire is going to be there, or be lecturing there. I feel like this aspect is still the same. There was a young artist there in ‘96 who specificallywanted to meet her idol. That person turned out to be a nightmare and broke her heart. It was part of the process of taking away the mythology behind an artist’s work and it happens to everyone. It happens in college when you worship someone, they come and give a talk, they’re an asshole, and you have to contend with the difference between the person and their work. Or the person and their legacy, or their cultural impact. That’s the biggest thing for me. Being there was a lot of harsh reality checks.

I met Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight there. Gwendolyn Knight wasn’t giving a talk. Bernarda Shahn, Ben Shahn’s wife, was still coming in the summer. She and Ben had a house on the property since 1966. She would still come and summer there sometimes. A bunch of women in my group got together and asked if we could invite Bernarda and Gwendolyn Knight to give a talk because it just felt like they were “only partners”. They were equally interesting, historically important artists who seemed to marry someone who stole the sunlight. Like Lee Krasner, the classic story.

And they decided to do the talk together. They spoke about the WPA, post-war abstract-expressionism, things they had seen from the ‘40s through the ‘60s in the New York art scene, and it was amazing. That happened because we were paying attention to the periphery. We were paying attention to other people engaged with or involved in Skowhegan that weren’t necessarily on the masthead. That was one thing that I’ll always cherish.

I’m one of those artists who, for better or worse, is kind of deeply obsessed with art history. For me Skowhegan remains this magical place where history IS. The opportunity to sit down one-on-one in a safe space out of the city and really engage and talk about your work with someone you admire and wanted to meet or bounce your ideas off of is there.

DE: Yeah, I think that’s really the great strength of Skowhegan. I actually didn’t know any of the professors or faculty that were going to be there my summer with one exception, and that person wound up being a big letdown like you described. What was really valuable to me at Skowhegan was meeting the other participants there: young artists that were really passionate and committed to what they were doing, They were really generous with their time and willing to talk about their work and my work in a one-on-one setting. I’m sure people can understand that as a concept but the reality of the experience is so much different than trying to talk about it abstractly.

JJ: I think grad school studio visits are so institutionalized and have so much to do with your surroundings. There is a lot of weird fucked up pressure when you’re in a program with the same 30 or 60 people building a thesis. I went to Skowhegan after Rutgers. I had more breakthroughs and more evolution at Skowhegan than I did during two years in grad school. Totally. 100%. Part of it was fresh eyes and different people, because MFA programs are can be a little incestuous nucleus and by the time you’re graduating you know everybody’s spiel. Nothing’s fresh.

DE: I did the reverse. I went to Skowhegan the summer before I started grad school. It was a blessing and a curse. It was great because Skowhegan was everything I hoped it would be in many ways. It set me off in a really good direction. But at the same time it created a bit of an unrealistic expectation of grad school, and grad school ended up being a bummer.

JJ: An expensive bummer.

DE: Yeah. I got away with not having to pay which is great and I am totally thankful for it. I got really lucky with that, but it was still a bummer, which is sad that I have to admit.

JJ: It’s fairly recent, maybe the last 25 years or so, that you have to get an MFA to be a studio artist. And part of that I think is a bit of a sham. It used to be “if I get a masters then I can always teach.” We’ve all seen the parallel universes of people who try to work while they try to make their art, or applying for grants like it’s their job, versus people that start teaching and never make work again. It’s heartbreaking how many people I know got sucked into institutional politics and their own work suffers. Those people are the teachers that have heart, and care, and are invested in their students. I had a professor at Rutgers that had no office hours and lived in New York: a pretty hot-shot artist. They would come in and do their 3-hour lecture class and they were out.

DE: Yeah, it’s unfortunate that it can be so tough to balance teaching with a personal practice, but both demand so much attention and effort. I can understand how many people struggle to do both equally.

Lets move on to your work. In one of your previous interviews, you said you have a sign in your studio that says “Don’t Overthink, Do.” Do you still have that?

JJ: Now there’s a sign up that just says “Relax.”

DE: Can you talk about these little reminders that you have?

JJ: I had that note up because I think a lot of conceptual artists fall into the trap of undoing their gesture before they make a mark. It’s very easy to fall into that place. I think it’s endemic of the time period in which I was educated and it’s probably still going on today. Theory and deconstruction is put upon your studio practice. The kind of artist I admire the most just makes and makes and makes and lets the world edit. The editing comes after. For me that note was just a reminder to not get paralyzed, and not deconstruct things before you even make the first move. Making minimalist work is hard. It’s very condensed. It’s very intense. It’s a lot about tension and space and negative space. Sometimes moving something a half an inch means having to really look at it and live with it for a couple of days. Things get really heady and really Buddhist in a way. You end up moving it back two inches the opposite way and that’s what works. It’s all about process. Process is a fascinating thing. I love speaking to artists about their processes because it’s just so crazy usually.

DE: I have a question along those lines. I got to see some of your acoustic sound panels at your show at The Kitchen. I remember enjoying them and not really understanding their relationship to music at all. I just saw them as abstract compositions. I understood you were using acoustic materials, but I didn’t contend with that conceptually. I was looking at them materially and formally. I don’t know anything about your relationship to music but I thought they were really enjoyable as formal works. I was curious to know how you feel about my reading because I know your conceptual relationship is something you speak about quite frequently. 

Sign from Jones studio

JJ: Once they’re out in the world it’s up to the viewer. Most pieces of mine hopefully have a multitude of entry points. I think that that’s a strength in the work. I can lecture for an hour about black paintings and the legacy of Ad Reinhardt, but if you don’t see that when you walk in, and instead stick your ear up to one of the paintings because you think it’s a speaker, then that’s three times as exciting. That happened a lot at The Kitchen because the speakers were mounted on the ceiling; there was an acoustic moment where everything was a whirlwind and you didn’t really know where the sound was coming from. I hadn’t anticipated how many people would walk up and stick their ear next to it, but what’s lovely is that the reverse happens: the panels are actually acoustic absorbers so the closer you get to them the quieter it gets. I love having a formalist read on the work because that’s super important to me.

DE: You have an extremely sharp aesthetic sensibility while working in a minimal, formal aesthetic. It’s so easy to screw that up and make it boring or uninteresting. It seems almost effortless to you. Do you make mockups or do you go right into the materials? Do you have fabricators make the pieces? They’re so polished when they’re done and ready.

JJ: The acoustic panels are fabricated by a company that does soundproofing for recording studios. It’s a very old-school direct relationship with an industrial company. I’m just repurposing what they already put out in the world.

DE: I know you get the panels but do you have them attached to the backing and painted by them?

JJ: Oh, no, I do it myself and it’s torture. The Sikkema show that just came down was the first time a friend said “why don’t you just use a paint sprayer?” I have a lot of conversations about the easier way to get there. It’s probably because I’m a masochist (laughter). It’s probably because there’s a part of me that loves and hates painting at the same time —-I’m still really struggling with that.

In a million years I didn’t think I was going to go back to the rectangle on a wall. Those paintings are made old-school Kenneth Noland style with sponges and rollers, then dry brushed on top of the paint to get rid of any lines from the roller. When the acoustic panels arrive I treat them very much like collage material. I’ll basically make color field paintings, then the panels are hammered on top with finishing nails which go into the armature. That’s the “one inch to the left or right creating tension” aspect. I’m also using an industrial glue that you use for automotive purposes, because acoustic panels are made of fiberglass. It’s fiber and canvas. It’s like the inside of a car door. I had to do a lot of strange adhesive investigating.

DE: And you make them yourself in your studio?

JJ: Yes, which means my production is low. If something is nailed or hammered down crookedly the whole piece is shot. If you make a black painting and make a mark on it you have to sand the whole thing down and start the surface all over. It’s a love-hate relationship. It’s very labor intensive. In the last two bodies of work, my biggest point of concern, for my own mental health, is that when you put something machine made next to something hand made, there’s a contrast.

There’s a scrutiny to the hand-made part. When they’re on the same surface, that tension becomes more apparent, and the scrutiny gets even higher. A registrar receives a piece and calls me and asks me if there’s a tiny pencil mark on the side. That’s my hand. It might not look like it, but my hands are in this work. It’s kind of intense.

DE: Having made a bunch of ultra finished works, it drives me insane and I really hate doing it. I would be happy to move away from that as soon as possible. Sometimes it’s what you have to do I guess.

JJ: Absolutely, brother! And of course the pieces that I have literally had tears over did not move. They’re still at the gallery. Strangely, the ones that came more easily were the ones that people gravitated to. And it’s like “really?” The big black pieces were like six weeks of deep evolvement.

DE: It’s funny: you’d think working in black would be easy, but it really shows more marks than anything else. You’d think it’d be the opposite.

JJ: I know, and I don’t know how many more white paintings I have in me either.

DE: Same problems.

JJ: The first time I really went that light, I would say if you look at it twice, it gets dirty. Just putting your eyes upon the surface makes marks appear.

DE: It’s like the Heisenberg principle.

Installation shot from Absorb / Diffuse, 2011 at The Kitchen

JJ: On a super morose tip, I was talking to a good friend of mine about the level of scrutiny that kind of work demands and I thought about all those artists that committed suicide. That’s horrible, but think about Mark Rothko or Fred Sandback or even Agnes Martin’s sort of self-banishment. I think that if you have the kind of personality that can feel satisfied and feel the grace of a single line, it gets pretty weighty. You have to confront the “it’s not enough” attitude of the world. It demands a level of criticism that is really opposed to the type of personality that makes that type of work. It’s fascinating.

DE: Sorry, can you sort of rephrase that? Your friends or people who make super minimal work - their personalities don’t reflect that?

JJ: There are the kind of people who can see the tenderness in a single line, and can feel satisfied with a simple gesture, whereas with minimalist works, with how they are read, are in a position where the simple gesture is not enough. The viewer can say, “that’s all?” Those two things are hard to reconcile. There’s a certain kind of person who walks up to an Agnes Martin and their jaw drops; they love it and they’re mesmerized. And there’s a certain type of person who just walks by it because it means nothing to them. It’s nothingness.

Decrescendo with Ledger Tone, 2014, Acoustic absorber panel and acrylic paint on canvas, 2 parts, 50 x 48 inches overall.

DE: Do you see a lot of that in people who aren’t trained in reading minimalist work? In my experience, it’s been difficult to find people that really get into or understand minimal work unless they have the extremely privileged education that helps frame that work within a specific context in history.

JJ: I agree, but there’s also the Buddhist, the tender-hearted, the type of person who doesn’t just walk by pictures at the Met, pop a selfie and keep going.

I spoke to an old security guard at the Met and he said “There’s more cameras that come to the Met than people now.” I would sit down in front of a painting and give it a little minute. This is when I start to feel very old.

DE: I’ve always been confused as to why museums don’t have more seating to look at paintings. I love looking at art as much as anyone I know, but if I’m at a museum for a couple hours, I get tired of standing in front of work. There’s not much I can do once my body’s telling me to leave.

JJ: I had a great moment a couple months ago. I went to Houston and I’d been to the Menil many times but I hadn’t been to the Cy Twombly gallery before. I went in, turned to the right and there’s just one single huge and sweeping piece. I really got a lump in my throat. As you turn the corner it just keeps going and engulfs you. I literally took two steps back and they put a bench right there. I couldn’t help thinking, “this happens all the time.” You come into this room and you get your breath taken away and take a step back right into a well-placed bench.

DE: Are you for that bench or against it?

JJ: I had a show at the Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta. I commissioned a friend of mine, Scott Ingrahm, who is an artist but also a really great builder of things, to copy a bench I had seen at Matthew Marks at an Ellsworth Kelly show. I was like “let’s make that bench.” Sometimes benches just work.

DE: Another thing that came to mind earlier when you mentioned the pursuit of perfection in minimal work, is that whenever people talk about the intense labor that goes into making a machined look I can’t help but think about Donald Judd’s work. I’ve seen a lot of it, but I feel like whenever I see it in person it’s not as perfect as I perceive it to be in my mind. I think he’s kind of the ultimate poster child for that kind of perfection in minimalism. I think it’s, again, more of a myth than a reality.

JJ: I also think it has to do with how things are documented. The very first time I saw Mondrian in person I was shocked because I thought “what is that?” The roundness of a brush edge means that there are no crisp black lines in a Mondrian. There just isn’t. The paint has usually done that alligator skin split at this point. It was before we stretched canvas all the way around the armature and there’s copper nails on the outside.

DE: It’s not even square.

JJ: Every single time it’s reproduced it just looks like this perfect thing.

DE: Like it was printed. I actually had that exact same experience. Have you seen the Italian Furturist Show at the Guggenheim yet?

JJ: No.

DE: I kind of had the exact same experience there, where I never cared too much for that work learning about it in art history, but then I saw the paintings in real life. They’re painted so beautifully that I did a 180 on my position. I really enjoyed that show, which I wasn’t expecting at all. The quality of the paint and the texture of the work doesn’t translate in documentation. It changed my understanding of the work completely.

JJ: Do you think that’s true in other works you don’t gravitate to?

DE: Absolutely. I’ve always understood that you have to see painting, or really all art, in person, but I think that this was probably the most eye-opening experience. I’d love to see a lot of work in person but you can’t always do that.

JJ: It makes me concerned about how much reproduction is out there and how it’s just expanding. I always wonder what people are doing with thousands of photos of artworks on their phone. What do you do with those? I tend to not have my phone out a lot of times but there are a ton of moments, like the first time I saw a Van Gogh, the first time I saw a Rothko, where I thought about taking a picture. Because you’re just like “It’s breathing.” You never saw that in your art history book.

We are nerding out. We’re staying in the canon, really strict.

DE: I think that’s important though. In the NEA interview that you did, you talked about one of your works that specifically referenced John Cage’s 4’33”. I actually would love to hear how you feel about the importance of that work within the history of avant garde music or sound-based. You said this funny thing about how every sound artist has to get their 4’33” out of their system which I can totally sympathize with. I feel I’ve even done myself in the past as well. It is sort of this monumental, groundbreaking piece that is a turning point in a lot of ways. I’d love to hear your take on it since you’re well-placed in between sound and visual art.

(L.) Soft Gray Tone with Reverberation #4, 2013, Acoustic absorber panel and acrylic paint on canvas, 36 x 48 inches. (R.) Soft Gray Tone with Reverberation #2, 2013,

Acoustic absorber panel and acrylic paint on canvas, 36 x 48 inches. Photograph by Cathy Carver / Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution

JJ: There’s so much written about it and so much I haven’t actually read about it.

DE: What about for you? Why did you gravitate toward it?

JJ: In a way, it’s so punk rock. It’s so bebop. It’s such a gesture. It’s generous and withholding at the same time. It’s smart and spiritual at the same time. It’s a score for sitting and paying attention to the sound that’s already around you. That is why I think it’s a critical, spiritual piece that’s had the gravity and the historic impact that it has had. But in another sense, it’s hilarious. It’s light. It’s so much about the pause in between seriousness of composing music, and the seriousness and weight of history. Saying “this is the piece; just my presence sitting at the piano is the work.” That, you know, is when it circles back to me to be this radical gesture that punk was; that bebop and modern jazz started, before all of them crossed over; and how Cage echoed the way people thought about music and composition and silence; his relationship to Merce Cunningham; his relationship to the visual arts. All that came after that gesture, that moment before he seeped into the history books. It’s such a radical, simple, smart moment. I think that’s why it resonates.

I love that you can buy 4’33” on iTunes. And what I love even more is that I first saw it maybe six years ago and the comments—does iTunes still have comments?—were amazing because people did not know what it was. They knew John Cage but they didn’t know the piece. There were all these warnings like, “don’t buy this, it’s nothing.” “Oh what a rip off. 99 cents for four minutes and 33 seconds of nothing.”

DE: Was it recorded live? Did it have like, the coughs of the space and stuff?

JJ: That’s interesting, because there’s a couple of different versions. Some are like that, but most of them are nothing. It’s a brilliant scam, to just have an empty digital file.

DE: How do you feel about that? Is that still the piece?

JJ: I think the piece has to be live. I think it absolutely has to be live.

DE: Do you think an empty MP3 is the same work then? Or is that actually a scam?

JJ: I don’t know. Scam is kind of harsh. It does the same thing: if you’re sitting in a room with headphones and you just heard a siren go by, you become a mindful listener for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It’s still a successful piece. Hopefully.

DE: You’re right. So before this interview I asked you if you had any topics you wanted to talk about, something that has been on your mind or is pertinent right now?

Screenshot of 4’33” by John Cage for sale on iTunes, 2014

JJ: I still feel like I’m on some weird planet by myself. I feel like I don’t have a lot of contemporaries which can be good and it can be bad. A) There’s not a lot of women making sound art. B) The abstract minimal aesthetic can definitely be challenging because there’s that question of whether or not you want the viewer to know who the maker is and how much weight and energy that has on the piece. So I think I’ve been a very slow-burn because it’s non-narrative, non-figurative work. Then I’ve had people tell me that the work is so much about the body to them and it’s so physical that of course in a way it has to do with the black body.

DE: You’ve mentioned that your work articulates this narrative or historical connection between black music of the era and the visual art that was being produced at that time. I’m not that well informed about it, but were those musicians looking at art?

Slowly, In a Silent Way, Caged: Audio work running time - 8:66 sec. – Memorex ‘bar’ speaker. Adjacent: “29 LP’s 1960-69” & “29 LP’s 1970-79” . Metal CD rack mount, 29 standard CD jewel cases and acrylic paint, 19 x 6 x 5 in. 2010. *embedded in wall, LP’s listed as title. Sikkema Jenkins & Co. 2010.

JJ: That’s more the sound work. Where I’m getting my materials from really points the room, or points the installation in a specific direction. That’s where sound can come in as the signifier. The Hirschhorn show could be perceived as a really formalist nod to the Ellsworth Kelly room it was next to, and the Barnett Newman that was hanging down the hall. But then it sort of flips the read when you recognize Olly Wilson or Wendell Logan and some of the heavy hitting Jazz and Classical composers that I was pointing to in the sound work. Like I said in the beginning of the conversation,if you don’t get that and just come and enjoy a nice white room and look at a black painting, that’s great too. It’s my own justification because there’s a lot of guilt that comes with being an abstract artist.

DE: Why did you use the word guilt?

JJ: That’s my favorite word as a Catholic Midwesterner. Making non-figurative, non-narrative work, I occasionally feel like a unicorn.

DE: Do you feel like you’re not doing justice to your background in that sense?

JJ: No. I’m hopefully pointing to a lot of history and legacy of what a radical act that is, but also Martin Puryear and Alma Thomas. I feel like I constantly have to talk about how I didn’t fall out of the sky. How there’s some precedent to the work. And Valerie Cassel Oliver at CAMH—“Black in the Abstract” was a brilliant two part show that was way overdue. To see early Sam Gilliam paintings that were really hard-edge. There was Felrath Hines who was a guy I had never heard of. I think he was a registrar at the Smithsonian but he was a painter also. His work was amazing.

DE: I guess I’m kind of fascinated by this now. What would be a solution to the isolation that you feel?

JJ: Me not being neurotic. I think that’s a big part of it. I think that being born in 1968 and being educated at the peak of multicultural discourse in the ‘90s really put a circle around where I thought I should be in terms of the work and where I always desired to go with it. Now I’m 45 and for the last ten years—with or without being on the periphery, with or without being popular, not having a gallery for 18 years in New York, maybe because of the kind of work, maybe not, maybe I wasn’t ready—but once you make that decision to follow your own aesthetic, even if you’re a lone wolf, that’s the most satisfying choice.

DE: Sorry if I’m missing the point, but is that where the conflict is? Is the work not explicitly dealing with your identity? Is there some sort of discrepancy there that you’re thinking about right now or am I missing it entirely?

JJ: No, that’s an old vibe. That’s an old argument. It goes way back to “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” written in 1926 by Langston Hughs for The Nation. Am I an artist or a black artist? Am I a writer or am I a black writer? I think for me it’s definitely generational. I’m sure a lot of people I’m going to talk to at Skowhegan, artists of color, this isn’t even in their universe anymore. It’s kind of amazing and great. But I think that having a very specific mission and thesis, to put your shoulders back and stand strong and embrace a little strain of art history that is about non-narrative, nonfigurative work, even if I can only just keep pointing to Alma Thomas, then that’s been my mission. And that’s why I think it mostly is about my own neuroses because I don’t think everyone gets heavy all the time about where their art lineage is coming from. You do what you do.

DE: I think I can sympathize with you on that. It is quite the burden as a black artist, I think. It’s been described that way to me by my friends. It’s hard for me to understand as a straight white male and it’s hard to talk about too. I think our culture has made it difficult for someone to talk from a privileged position, as myself, to engage it and understand it fully. But I definitely understand that it’s a difficult thing, even for younger people, even though you just said you feel like it might not be as big of an issue anymore. Even if it’s not as apparent in the work, necessarily, the anxiety, not anxiety…

JJ: It is anxiety…

DE: The anxiety is there. In all art, I think most artists are trying to understand themselves through making and I think your identity is obviously central to that. So it comes up. And our culture still hasn’t quite gotten around racial disparities as much as we’d like to think.

JJ: There’s a big left-wing bloc that thinks “hey we voted for Obama, it’s all good” and it’s like “Wow, okay”. That’s it. It’s done. Black president. Check.

I am such an art nerd. I’ve cried two times in institutional settings: one was the first time I got a work in the permanent collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem, because that was just like family, lump in the throat, thinking about my mom and grand mom. And the second was showing next to Rauchenberg and Cage at the Menil. That was like “how the fuck?” The pieces I made at The Kitchen ended up next to Rauchenberg’s White Paintings at the Menil and they had 4’33” in the middle of the room under glass?! Child of hippies, black girl in Ohio in this moment? And The Studio Museum, what that meant. I’m just a “tenderoni” who’s obsessed with art history and my place in it.

SILENCE: The Menil Collection, 2012

#01: Rebecca Morris

Skowhegan Interview Project

Skowhegan class of 1994

Don Edler: We are building an archive of artist interviews that we hope to make available through the Skowhegan library, the concept for these interviews is to allow artists to speak candidly about their practice or otherwise. We hope to create a more interpersonal archive through which contemporary artists can represent themselves in their own words, through conversation. The format is open, so if there is anything you would like discuss, feel free to do so, otherwise, I have a few questions prepared, we can start from there and see where the conversation goes.

Rebecca Morris: Great! Thank you for inviting me.

Scott Reeder, Elizabeth Saveri, Rebecca Morris, Matthew Plumb, in front of Van Gogh Studio, 1994

DE: Do you mind talking about your time at Skowhegan as a participant in 1994? And is there anything in particular that you remember learning during your time at Skowhegan that is still part of your life or practice today?

RM: I went to Skowhegan right after I got my MFA, and I think that was perfect timing for me because when you get out of graduate school, you can get a little depressed and overwhelmed, and you lose the community that you had while in school. Attending Skowhegan really opened up my community at a crucial moment I met people from New York, LA, and places in between. It was exciting to have conversations with people that were in the same place I was, but with different backgrounds and having come out of different schools across the country. I was living in Chicago at the time, but meeting all these fellow artists that summer helped me begin to make decisions about what I wanted to do next. It was empowering to open up those kinds of possibilities. It was at Skowhegan that I met and became friends with people from Los Angeles, whom I later visited. Soon after, I began thinking that I wanted to move to LA. That was pretty huge in terms of where I am now, having lived in LA for 16 years and counting. Looking back, Skowhegan was very stimulating in this way.

DE: Let’s move on to your work. Do you see a relationship to photography in your work?

RM: When I was in undergrad at Smith College, I was doing equal parts painting and photography. At some point, I started working primarily in painting. I don’t remember any sort of a specific moment that caused this shift, it just happened. I know I was getting sick of all the darkroom work, I liked taking pictures, and I liked working with contact sheets, but after a while, all the chemical processes became too tedious, and working within photography lacked immediacy. It felt too distant from the hands-on aspect of making an image and working with materials that you get with painting.

Photography is still incredibly important for my work in the sense that I have always taken tons and tons of photographs. One of my graduate advisors was the Chicago Imagist painter Barbara Rossi—she had this slide collection of ice cream cones that she had taken, basically signs for ice cream shops. A lot of them were taken in India, and you would think that ice cream cones would be a pretty steady format, some variation of a circle and a cone, but these are so charming and surprisingly inventive.She took hundreds of pictures like this. If you were a very lucky graduate student of hers, she would bring in a slide carousel and show them to you. It made a huge impression on me—this idea of taking a picture of a single type of thing over and over and over again and capturing all the different permutations, and thus creating a personal typology. I have always been interested in a kind of vernacular photography (that so many people are interested in now with Instagram and Pinterest) so it is not very novel at this point.But I think seeing Barbara’s ice cream cone pictures in my early twenties really made an impression on me. It encouraged a directed start to documenting the normal and weird things around me like signs, architecture, parking lots, van art, whatever. This is interesting to me still, but I see people who can capture these same things I’m photographing doing such a better job and putting all of their effort behind it. So it doesn’t feel as important to me to reveal that part of what I do right now. But it’s definitely there.

DE: It is interesting to hear that you have also made those connections between your paintings and contemporary modes of image making. I don’t really know why I was thinking of those things when I was going through your catalogues but the idea of casual photography just came to mind somehow.

RM: That’s nice actually. The thing that I really do take pictures of all the time is my studio. I’m constantly taking pictures. Each time I go, I maybe take 20 pictures of what’s happening in there. The paintings change so much, I take pictures because I want to remember what something looked like before and after certain moves. It’s helpful.

DE: Do you think subconsciously you might be incorporating the collapse of dimensionality or the flattening of the image plane that happens in photography—taking that flatness into your mind and using it as a resource for coming up with the shapes that you paint?

RM: Yeah, maybe, I mean no one has ever said that before, but I could see it.It is totally possible.I am a strong believer in the unconscious. There’s a painting I made recently that’s going to be in a show in Los Angeles in March. I’m not going to bore you with explaining it too much because explaining abstract paintings can get really kind of stupid, when you start hearing back what you say. But it’s a painting that has a similarly painted background area and center area, so the center area seems to reveal back to that background. But I changed the marks in the center so it’s not a one to one match. It ends up doing that thing in filmmaking, I don’t remember what it’s called—maybe you do, where you pull back and zoom in with the camera at the same time.

DE: I don’t, but it’s a weird sort of warping effect where the subject matter stays still but the background shifts.

RM: Yes, exactly, and it’s a way to really create drama and it’s almost that feeling when your heart starts beating faster and freaks out for a second and the camera can kind of capture that sensation.

DE: It emulates vertigo, right?

RM: Yeah, it’s like a hyper focus? Anyway in this painting that I’m describing, I had to think for a long time about whether I would make this center area a direct reveal this outer border. In the end I decided not to, and change them a little, and to me it creates that cinematic effect I’m talking about. It was the big decision in the painting and I’m very happy I did it. To me it feels cinematic. So I think you’re right about that. There’s something conscious or unconscious or whatever.

DE: Weirdly enough I hadn’t thought of this but now that you mention it, it becomes very loud in my mind.Do you find yourself thinking about the perceptual implications of your paints? How the viewer perceives the paint?

RM: I do—sometimes it has to be pointed out to me, someone will say “oh this is doing this, space-wise for me” and I’m like “oh, right.” So although I know I am doing it, I may not be aware of how much I am doing it. I also think there is always a sort of question about the space I am painting, it is never a very assertive gesture where this is the foreground and this is the background, etc. There is always a bit of ambiguity as to whether I am painting the background, or the foreground, or painting the flicker between these two possible spaces. I like that in-betweenness more than deciding. Some paintings will have very similar formats, but the way they work spatially will create very different impressions. Some will be very layered and go back into space, but others will feel like the space is side by side on the same plane. I am not overly aware of these things while I am painting, but maybe subconsciously I am accepting that picture space, and going more towards it. I don’t set out thinking ‘this painting’s going to be very flat’ but I am making decisions and moving in one direction or another, but without a set idea of making a specific type of painting.

DE: How do you feel about that creation of space, and maybe we can actually use this as a transition to speak about one of your paintings in the Biennial—Untitled (#14-13). I was looking at that painting, and I noticed you are using framing devices and scale to create depth and distance in a vaguely architectural sense. Without getting into a conversation about defining what is or is not abstraction, I am curious if you could talk about the depiction of space and how that relates to abstraction because I feel like establishing figure-ground relationships you’re starting to undermine pure abstraction in a sense.

Untitled (#14-13), 2013

RM: For a time, I was making paintings that were more field-based, meaning the abstraction was more about an all-over composition that continued, perhaps, beyond the edge of the picture plane— embracing the idea that the painting was capturing a smaller portion of something larger. I wasconcerned with how to make something go back or forward in that space, or how to articulate the literalness of the canvas itself. I made those paintings in the early 2000s and then there was adefinite switch to a very frontal, splintered-type space. So instead of having a single field, now there were many pieces of things coexisting together. That was a big shift and I haven’t really gone back to the field paintings since. I will say that the way I’m handling the borders around the paintings right now is more field like and what’s happening inside the borders is more like after that break I made probably around 2004-2005. The one at the Whitney is like this. It is a blue painting with a grid around it, and the grid is a field. If you look at how the grid ends at each edge of the canvas—it’s not even.

DE: It’s off-center. I see it.

RM: It’s off-standard. In all honestly that wasn’t something I was trying to do on purpose—it’s literally because I wasn’t measuring things, I’m just thinking of the basic shape I want. I wanted an internal shape of a square with two scalloped/ wavy edges and two straight ones. When I put the grid in around it, I was free-hand measuring. I was a little worried that the grid not meeting the sides of the canvas the same way at each edge would be distracting, and feel too much like content. But I think that there is so much happening in the painting, that I don’t think it does. In the end, I wouldn’t mind if it did function as content, whatever that content might be.

DE: Do you think the grid functioned as a sort of support mechanism or structure that gave you support or security to try different things within the composition?

RM: Absolutely, I think it is a very stabilizing force. In that painting there are a lot of wavy, free form shapes happening, so the grid, which is a cool, dark blue has a more clinical character, that is non-sentimental and functions as a structured back-drop. It may not even be an actual back-drop, but it is a bracing character, and it is a border too, containing everything, holding it together, so yes, the word support is definitely accurate.

Early in-progress shots of Untitled (#14-13), September 2013

DE: The grid is a type of repeating form or pattern, it makes me think of repetition, and the notion that the repetition of an object, shape, or sign has the effect of obliterating meaning, do you think that applies to your grid?

RM: There was a period of time when I thought about that idea a lot, repeating something to make it banal, but I haven’t been concerned with those ideas for a long time. I think now when I repeat something, I only repeat it when I feel it is being used in a different way. I am not repeating something because it is the same thing each time I am using it. When I am repeating something, it has some different association for me, so I can repeat it. I am only interested in repeating things if they have a different function or resonance from iteration to iteration.

DE: You’ve alluded to this in other writings, but are you familiar with the term “paradoleia?”

RM: No.

DE: It’s a psychology term, but it’s the psychological phenomena for seeing recognizable things in patterns or objects. When you see an animal in the clouds or something, that’s paradoleia. It comes from the Greek word “dolem” which is Greek for “form.” “To perceive form” is the Greek translation.

RM: Yes, I am interested in that idea without having known the formal word for it…that’s how I see the world a lot. It’s funny—when I listen to music and really like something, I’ll hear the lyrics based on how they fit in with the music but I’m very rarely listening to the lyrics for meaning.

DE: I can relate to that. Are you good at remembering lyrics to songs?

RM: No, only if the song is playing at that moment might they come back to me. The words don’t translate to meaning for me. My dad who is a composer comments that I often refer to the sounds of music as “noises” — I don’t say notes — and I think it’s something funny about the way I’m perceiving it - sounds as noises.

DE: I can totally relate to that, and I sort of have the exact same relationship to music and lyrics as you just described. Maybe it’s how our minds work–why we’re drawn to abstraction in general, or image making, or why we’re visual people.

RM: I’ll also look at things and never question what the image could be about—like strange shapes or something. There’s sort of a literalness that I notice, but that’s not to say I’m not detail oriented, or not able to experience nuance.

DE: Are you speaking to looking at images in painting right now or in general?

RM:  In general. Though I’ve done studio visits with grad. students, and I’m looking at their work and talking about it and realize after an embarrassing amount of time that this thing I’ve been talking about the whole time was an abstracted figure and I had no sight of it. I think it’s because I’m just so prone to looking at shapes and forms that I just don’t feel this urge to make them make sense. I can exist for a long time without this necessity to make things cohere, and I’m perfectly happy to exist in that state, but I know it drives other people crazy.

Morris’s studio in Los Angeles, November 2013

DE: I think that’s an invaluable tool for you as an abstract painter though because it allows you to fully explore shape and form in that regard without having to deal with any sort of additional informational hang-ups associated with those things.

RM: I think you’re right about that. You stay more baggage free.

DE: I’m interested in your relationship with mixing materials or experimenting with textures and also I’m really curious about your use of white in your paintings— are you painting white or are you leaving the canvas gesso white? How do you deal with that background whiteness you seem to leave in a lot in your painting compositions?

RM: I sometimes leave the white of the gesso as a white and I sometimes paint-in the white. I like using the white of the gesso because it’s such a neutralized surface and I enjoy that. For example, with the painting at the Whitney, Untitled (#14-13), the blue grid sits on white gesso and there’s no white oil paint there. But inside the central shape, there are lots of different painted-in whites. I love seeing white on white, especially when it’s kind of a bisque-y dirty white next to a very warm white. I think it looks really beautiful and it’s very subtle. I do a lot of light paint handling—a lot of turped out oil paint, so everything gets very transparent, and you’re very aware that the paintings are painted on a white ground because of this transparency. The transparency also highlights the quality of oil paint itself, which can change so dramatically given what color you’re using, and what brand you’re using.

Williamsburg Paints—some of their blacks and browns have this really earthy chunkiness so when itturps out you see the paint’s granulation. I really like that. I’m making the paintings with oil paint and not acrylic because I like this sort of stubbornness and the irregularity that happens with oil paint. I really love this quality in oil painting, so I’m always trying to highlight different aspects of it—with certain brushstrokes, or by painting something quickly. Sometimes I purposefully fill-in an area in specific way because I want a motion or direction left in the paint. Due to it being so thin, that motion is captured. It’s a way to make everything look vibrating and different from itself.

I’m also quite dedicated to color and color relationships for textural shifts. Specifically relational color. I have a friend (Mary Weatherford) who’s so gifted at layering colors and building washes on top of each other and creating entirely new color situations because of that layering. I’m always attracted to that because I don’t do that so much. It is a different textural look.

DE: Now that you’ve spoken about it a little bit, and I’m looking at this painting in the Biennial, and it almost feels collaged. It feels like you have different moments or shapes that are all collaged together as opposed to like painted in a transparent way that would sort of layer them in the way you’re talking about that your friend does.

RM: You know when I was talking earlier about making that break from the more field-based paintings to the work I’m making now, I see it as coming out of an intense period of making collages back then. That sort of did it—collage is incredible.

Rebecca Morris (A ‘94) lives and works in Los Angeles. This interview was conducted to coincide with the exhibition of Morris's work in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.