Thursday, September 06, 2007

Art Space Talk: Pat Lipsky


Pat Lipsky has dedicated herself to painting for several decades. Lipsky graduated from Cornell University with a BFA in 1963, following which she attended the graduate program in painting at Hunter College where she studied with the sculptor, Tony Smith.

Lipsky's paintings have been reviewed by David Cohen (The New York Sun), Ken Johnson (The New York Times), Alicia Turner (The Miami Herald), Karen Wilkin (Art in America), Alexi Worth (The New Yorker) -- among others. Her paintings are in twenty-four public collections: The Whitney, The Hirshhorn, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and she has had twenty-eight solo exhibits.

Installation, Color Paintings, 2006, Elizabeth Harris

Brian Sherwin: Pat, through the years you have had several solo and group exhibitions -- including group exhibitions -- Whitney Museum of American Art (New York). How do exhibitions make you feel? Do you learn from them -- as in, do you take in all the information you can about your work from onlookers?

Pat Lipsky: Exhibitions make me feel nervous at first, and are also often a goal to work towards (although I work all the time, with or without an upcoming show). I have learned a great deal from my shows. They're one of my best teachers -- seeing the work up, out of the studio, and looking at it with "foreign eyes" is very illuminating. There were some shows early on where I felt (as the woman in Eliot’s "Prufrock") that "that is not what I meant at all. That is not it at all." The viewer is of course important too, but somehow the first thing is my own eye. It’s always fascinating to get another person’s take, especially someone you respect, and it's also interesting and instructive to see which paintings resonate with professional viewers, and critics.
Blue Border, oil on canvas, 70 1/2" x 68 3/4", 2002

BS: You have been reviewed in The New York Times, Art in America, The New York Sun, ARTnews, and several other publications. Thinking back on your early years, did you ever expect your work to gain this much attention?

PL: In all candor, I did. I’m like any artist: I feel there hasn’t been enough. Yes. That’s because I had a strange start in the art world. Almost a year after graduating from Hunter College’s
Master’s program my work was taken on by one of the then-best galleries in New York City, Andre Emmerich. This was perhaps an unrealistic debut and spoiled me for what a life in art might be. I immediately started selling the stained paintings -- two styles: burst and wave -- that I was doing at the time, and there was attention from the press and even a kind of odd bonus, a solo show at the Everson Museum in Syracuse. So I got the idea that this was the way it was going to be. And then, to my surprise, the lean years came. So to answer the question, my work gaining attention and being reviewed was something I expected from my early years -- although not, of course, as a student.

That’s That, oil on canvas, 53 1/4” x 67 1/2”, 2002
BS: Speaking of your early years, can you recall any periods or events of your youth that helped pave the way toward your exploration of art?
PL: Good question. I guess you could start with my mother taking me, when I was seven, to study painting with an elderly man in the neighborhood who had a framing shop. I sat in back, in a little booth, and he taught me how to use oil paint, how to make a tree, and a path, and put clouds in the sky. This appeared magical to me, but I’d already been drawing, and working with crayon and watercolor so it wasn’t so strange to find myself working in oil at that age. Then 17 years later there was Tony Smith, a great teacher whom I had the privilege of studying with in graduate school. He had a real sensitivity to color, and helped me to both refine and re-find color in my painting. And then, too, there was seeing my first Rothko at the Jewish Museum in a show created by a Cornell teacher Alan Solomon. I gasped when I saw that first painting, an orange and yellow. I didn’t know that you could do that in painting, make color so obviously the subject. (Even though Rothko claims in his writing that color is not the subject.)
BS: You studied at Hunter College, The Art Students League, and Cornell University. Who were your mentors during those years? Can you recall any interesting experiences from your apprentice years?

PL: The Jewish Museum show was a big moment. I would add this anecdote about the Art Students League, where I studied during a semester, I took off from Cornell. The teacher was the painter Charles Alston. I was in the class painting from the model; there I was with my canvas and palette starting to work when Alston came up to me and said, "Why are you doing that? Painting from the model?" I was stunned. Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do in a figurative class? He said, "Why don’t you try an abstract painting?" The question frightened me, but I was always one to take a dare. So even though it felt totally alien and I didn’t really know how to do it, that’s when I painted my first abstract canvas.
Alan Solomon at Cornell was also instrumental in that he knew the scene in New York; he served as Director of The Jewish Museum at the same time he taught in Ithaca, and he would tell me every weekend what I should see in New York. I’d ride the Greyhound bus to town and visit the galleries and museums he suggested. As well as the Rothko, I saw the first stained paintings by Louis, Frankenthaler and Noland. The new acrylic paint invented by Lenny Bocour allowed painters to work directly into the canvas, as Pollock had done with enamel, instead of on it. I also remember Jan Mueller and the early Stellas -- as well as Rauschenberg, whose work I detested.

Homage to Bellini, oil on linen, 81 3/4" x 62", 2006

BS: Pat, you have also been an art instructor. You taught at Parsons School of Design, Hunter College, San Francisco Art Institute, and several other schools. During those years how did you find balance between being an instructor and creating your own art? Also, can you describe your instruction philosophy: in your opinion, what is the best way for an art student to learn?

PL: I found it extremely difficult to balance teaching with painting. Very few painters will say this -- it’s the thing you aren’t supposed to say. You should say, "I grew and I changed" or "the students' fresh attitude helped me see my own work in a blah-blah way." I just saw it as a big intrusion, three days a week. I knew every exit sign in the building; this is a hard thing for students to know, but it’s something most painters and sculptors will admit, and a lot of writing teachers too. It’s better, of course, when there is a really interested student.
As for my instruction philosophy, I told the students to look at painting; I took them to see paintings whenever possible. And I told them not to listen to what Harold Bloom calls "the cheerleaders" in the art and art history departments, who were pushing outsider art, feminist art, video art, each for a semester, but to look at the masters who had created the tradition. As Donald Judd once wrote, "When you need a plumbing job done, you call a working plumber." Except in rare instances, it’s more a situation of surviving art school with your enthusiasm and talent intact. I like the Gertrude Stein quote: "Genius is knowing who to be influenced by."

Proust’s Sea, oil on linen, 81 3/4” x 62 3/8", 2006

BS: I see you once gave a lecture at the Pollock-Krasner House. Can you recall what you spoke about? Also, do you plan to give any lectures about art in the near future?

PL: The Pollock-Krasner House -- that was a lot of fun. The topic was "What Tony, Lee and Clem Told Me"; that is, what I’d learned from Tony Smith, Lee Krasner and Clement Greenberg. (I knew the latter best.) I particularly compared Greenberg and Smith; what was so interesting was that they were talking about the same people --Pollock, Barnett Newman, Rothko -- and saying entirely different things, about their approaches and their work. I also talked about Soho in the seventies. (The talk incidentally is collected at The Archives of American Art, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/collections_list.cfm/fuseaction/Collections.ViewCollection/CollectionID/6089)

Installation: Red River Valley series, 2004, Elizabeth Harris

BS: Two of your most recent bodies of work -- the Red River Valley series and Color Paintings -- were exhibited in New York in 2004 and 2006, respectively. In the Red River Valley group, you repeated one theme over nine canvases. In this series you subtly changed the colors from one picture to the next. With Color Paintings, you continued your goal of expanding the vocabulary of color in abstraction, with an additional focus on colors that have not been labeled or codified. Can you go into further detail about these paintings? What influenced you to create them?

PL: With the second group, paintings that have many no-name colors, I was looking for hues that don’t yet exist, that don’t immediately have a name when you try to describe them -- like the new words or combinations you sometimes get in poetry. I think many colors have become clich├ęs. I made up my mind to avoid those and move onto more difficult and complex mixtures -- to give the viewers an experience they hadn’t had before. What I had in mind was a kind of abstracted landscape -- creating mysterious and elegant worlds through color. I tried to keep the surface as smooth and the format as unruffled as possible -- to drench the viewer in color.
I didn’t, and don’t, end a picture until it has what I consider a presence, a sense of life that extends beyond the painting. By sense of life I mean that it has an identity, like a place or person. Sometimes this takes a very long time to achieve. Sometimes it doesn’t happen -- and those are the pictures you don’t show.

BS: What about Red River Valley?

PL: Those came out of twelfth-- and thirteenth-- century stained glass windows I ‘d been looking at for several years in France. I came away with the idea that these anonymous stained glass artisans were the true and original fauve artists. I went to many French cathedrals -- Troyes, Laon, St. Chapelle, Chartres-- where the overwhelming sensation I had was simply the richness of red and blue. That, especially, is what I wanted to recreate in these canvases.
I also responded to the faintly homemade feel of early stained glass, and tried to recreate that impression as well. The structure in the pictures is always asymmetrical, with no line hitting at the same place in any of the divisions. In all my painting, I’m interested in what "difference" is and in how differences add up, creating assonance in the minor shifts between hues. As you continue to look at the paintings the differences "come up" and make you aware that what you saw at first is not what the paintings are about.
My reading of Proust and Eliot, my viewing of Bellini and Giorgione and Titian and Ablers and Cornell and Pollock, my listening to Bach and Thelonius Monk, my liking Eric Rohmer and Monty Python might seem totally unrelated, but they teach the same lesson: differences matter. When Monk plays a single note instead of another, a piece is either saved or ruined. When Albers puts a white next to a yellow instead of a blue, the yellow is changed -- and the white is changed too. If Proust chooses to follow one character instead of another, to write 50 pages about a dinner instead of four paragraphs, the reader's experience is alerted in the most intimate and immediate way. We look at works of art as single large units -- but they’re actually composed of hundreds, of thousands of individual and tiny units, each one a decision. It’s those units that I’ve been experimenting with throughout my career.

Installation: Red River Valley series, 2004, Elizabeth Harris

BS: Pat, you have stated the following: "Painting is about seeing. And that’s not easy. To see what you’ve done, to be able to actually see other work takes a lifetime. Seeing changes -- what I thought was very good last year might not look that good to me now. And when I put something away for six months and then take it out I’m a bit nervous at first. Will it hold up? Of course, it’s even worse when it’s your own work, because you are so subjectively wrapped up in it. It’s everyone and everything you know up until that moment." Would you say that you are your own worst critic? Do you think that is a good thing?

PL: Aside from Henry James -- who preferred the Academy to Monet -- I don’t believe there is a "worst critic." I do take my eye seriously, and I also like looking at my paintings with people I’m close to. Sometimes I’m surprised I couldn’t see that something wasn’t working from six months ago. It’s a humbling experience. It can go the other way too -- something I’ve ignored, pushed aside, actually is working. When you are standing next to another person looking together it objectifies the experience of seeing, and that's helpful. (James writes, in one of his stories, "he had a fresh eye, and I was in a good deal of need of any such organ" -- which is why nobody is ever really a worst critic.) As a painter it’s essential to be critical of your work, and to edit heavily. As Matisse said "An artist’s bad paintings are his own worst enemy."

BS: Pat, when I view your paintings I think about Mark Rothko. I must ask, has his work been an influence on your art? If so, have you ever visited the Rothko Chapel? If you have -- how did you feel upon entering? Also, who else has influenced your art?

PL: We’ve been talking today a lot about Rothko. I think his paintings of the fifties are brilliant -- along with Pollock some of the best pictures of the twentieth century. I don’t much like his later work, and although I’ve never been to the Rothko Chapel I’ve studied other pictures from after 1955 – some of the Seagram panels were shown at the National Gallery a few years ago, and there’s the late Rothko room at the Tate Gallery in England. To my eye, Rothko falls off in these paintings, which look almost as if they were done by someone imitating Rothko. I think it’s the turgid colors, the maroon palette, and the general darkening of hues -- none of it seems to suit his sensibility. To my mind these pictures are self-conscious, trying to look important and serious, and for that reason they miss both qualities. (I’ve actually heard that he’d invite people over to look at them and then play Mozart and ask if the paintings came up to that level.)
As for other influences, lately I’ve been influenced by Bellini and Titian, and northern Renaissance painters like Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. When I was a teenager I loved Cezanne and Manet, who I became acquainted with through a set of posters from the Cortauld Gallery that hung in my bedroom. There are many others along the way, Pollock and Newman to name two Americans. And always I’ve admired Matisse, the great colorist.

Poussin Calm, oil on linen, 23 7/8” x 33 1/4”, 2007

BS: In your work you seem focused on the medium itself -- I sense that you are interested in the physicality of paint, how you can push it to make it do what you want. Is this so? Also, can you go into further detail about your painting process? How do you begin a painting?

PL: I do love paint. I love colors in tubes, and pure pigment -- I even love the names of colors. "Terre verte," "burnt sienna," "alizarin crimson." I am interested in surface, how to go about creating one that is rich, beautiful, elegant and smooth. And I’ve thought a lot about the expressive nature of surfaces -- for example in Chardin and Raphael and Soutine, the surface is the style. It’s the most personal thing.
For how I start a painting, I begin sometimes from a work on paper, but more often not. I usually have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to do, and usually that changes as I go along. Some paintings take years to complete. As Robert Frost once said of his poems, I try to "ride on my own melting."

BS: Pat, what are you working on at this time? Also, do you have any upcoming exhibitions?

PL: I’m working on some smaller paintings for the first time in many years, at the same time that I'm continuing the larger scale ones. And I’m recently back from Venice and Rome, so I’m playing with renaissance colors.

BS: As you know, many people have a hard time understanding (and sometimes even accepting) abstract art. In your opinion, why do you think that is? What would you say to someone who does not understand abstract art?

PL: I’d say, "Look again," and then I’d say, "Keep looking." Abstract art isn’t that difficult; it’s only a little tougher to get abstraction than representational painting, because it’s a new language. I think the highest moment we had in painting -- and maybe in any of the arts -- was Abstract Expressionism in the fifties. We were competing internationally for the first time. Seeing this work did involve some struggle on the part of the audience, some necessity to expand, to tolerate that feeling of being uncomfortable. But then we absorbed the style. The minute the deliberately vacuous Pop Art showed up, many of those same people breathed a sigh of relief and said, "Oh thank God. At least I can stop that struggle now. I can relax." Nabokov makes a great point somewhere; he says nothing dates quicker or more irrevocably than the avant-garde. Look at some of the most "modern" exhibits from the Venice Biennale last summer -- staged photographs of women abandoned by lovers, artists throwing licorice on the floor. How does that compare with the experience of taking in a Rothko, a Matisse, or a Pollock? The art that has replaced abstraction is about as visually rewarding as a trip to the super market -- and in lots of cases less so. Think of those great photographs of supermarkets by Gursky.

Portrait, oil on canvas, 24 3/8” x 38 5/8”, 2006

BS: Pat, tell us about your studio? What are the conditions you need to create? Do you work in silence or do you prefer to listen to music? What is it like to be in the studio of Pat Lipsky?

PL: I like silence -- which is very hard, if not impossible, to come by in New York City. I don’t listen to music when I’m working; it throws me off. I have a nice space with five windows and a skylight so the light is good. I know which wall gets the morning light and which the afternoon, and so I move around accordingly. And towards the end of the day, I notice I see better.

Installation: Color Paintings series, 2006, Elizabeth Harris

BS: Do you have any advice or suggestions for painters who are just starting out? Many young artists seem to fall into the trap of waiting to be discovered. As you know, that does not always happen. What is the best way for an emerging artist to put his or her best foot forward?

PL: I don’t know the answer to that question. I remember the late Clement Greenberg saying in lectures he gave in the Northeast, "Come to the center. The great artists of the past had to go to Rome, or Paris, and now it’s New York." On the other hand, there seems to be a way in which the art world climate is mirroring the political climate; both seem played out, full of evasions and numbness. So really I’m at a loss for advice, other than to say, "be true to yourself, trust your instincts." I guess what I’m saying is read Emerson’s "Self Reliance." It’s one of the most American texts, and also one of the best texts to give a young artist.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the art world?

PL: No, I think that about covers it. Thank you.

3 comments:

Matthew Hall said...

Very interesting. It's a great relief to hear from someone who looks towards greatness of craft rather than the numbing safety and chicness of the "avant garde". I was grabbed by this passage: The minute the deliberately vacuous Pop Art showed up, many of those same people breathed a sigh of relief and said, "Oh thank God. At least I can stop that struggle now. I can relax."
Often, people only pretend to be exited by challenges and the new. The art world clearly shows a different reflection.

Skip Van Cel said...

The art reviewer from the Miami Herald is Elisa Turner, not Alicia Turner.

plumbing Toronto said...

Thanks for your interesting story. I love art and i love paintings. Paintings has a unique version of expressing your self. Thanks!