Friday, June 08, 2007

Art Space Talk: Carson Collins

I was introduced to Carson Collins over a year ago while observing art online. Mr. Collins is a very devoted painter and he has many interesting stories.

Carson has been working on The Ocean Series for more than a quarter of a century. This body of work reveals the work ethic of Mr. Collins. It is rare to find an artist so devoted to a theme.

You can observe more of his work by going to the following link:

Brian Sherwin: Carson, the subject of your art is the four elements in their most majestic setting - the shoreline. Your images have captured aspects of earth, air, fire, and water. Why have you had such a strong focus on these themes? Do you feel that painters should share this same focus in their work or is more of an issue of personal choice?

Carson Collins: I guess you could say that this conflation of a traditional marine sunset with a color-field painting, something that originally crossed my mind sometime back in 1977, has turned out to be a fairly fertile idea for me. Call it a Remodernist approach to the color-field tradition if you like, but I'm not trying to deconstruct anything, fit into any category, or prove any theories.

BS: Do you plan to work on the Ocean Series until the day you die?

CC: I don't make any plans to speak of; I kicked the hope habit long ago. There's no tomorrow. So far, the motif continues to fascinate me, as it has for the past thirty years.

BS: I understand that you have traveled the world and that you have lived in many places. How do the customs and experiences you have faced during your travels influenced your painting? Do you consider yourself a vagabond? If so, is that reflected in your work? It seems, based on your work, that you are a man who seeks new horizons- both physically and mentally.

CC: I've lived and worked, for a year or more, in 7 of the USA States and 6 other countries, not to mention the ones I've visited. In my experience, the problems for an artist are the same in any country: poverty, and the fact that very few people are ever going to understand or appreciate what you're doing.

Am I a "vagabond"? I've done a fair amount of traveling without ever having had any capital to speak of, if that's what you mean. But I'm past my prime. That sort of thing was a lot easier for me at 25 than it was at 52. I was born in 1953.

I confess that I am much inclined to travel. "No horizon too far." It’s arguably the best form of education. I intend to go to Tierra del Fuego some day soon. The atmospheric light and the ocean wave forms there must be something truly amazing. There's a legend about an ancient stone ruin down there that glows in the dark, and my friend (physician and poet) Chris Horak and I intend (in the usual way of aging adventurers) to find it.

BS: Carson, one of your major influences has been the art of Claude Monet. What connections to his work have you strived to create within the context of your own work. Do you share some of his philosophy about artistic creation? If so, can you go into further detail about that?

CC: Monet, in my opinion, was the greatest painter that ever walked the earth. He wasn't much of a philosopher. His last series, the water lilies, are transcendent. Visit the Orangerie in the Tuileries Gardens in central Paris if you can. Sit down on the little bench and let one of these grand, astonishing works surround and dissolve you.

BS: When I first observed your work- about a year ago- I noted that there seemed to be a trace of Mark Rothko in your paintings. Is Rothko an influence? Have you ever visited the Rothko Chapel?

CC: I walked into the Chapel (on the campus of Rice University in Houston, TX) one day in 1974, expecting to find less than nothing; just another high art hoax. My reaction was both overwhelming and totally unexpected. I literally wept, much as I also did years later when I saw the Van Goghs in Munich. Rothko was a genius and a tragic hero; he sought and achieved theexpression of an authentic personal spirituality within the then- dominant idiom of Ab-Ex. I don't think there's one famous painter living today who's worth the shit on the bottom of Mark Rothko's shoes.

BS: I'm not sure why, but when I view your paintings I think of the Iliad and other classic texts. I'm assuming that you are well-read since your work conveys that... at least to me.

CC: Perhaps the thing that gives you this impression is a quality of timelessness, which is inherent in my subject matter as well as in my rendering of it.

Here's something Robert Wallis said about my painting, Et In Arcadia Ego: "The late afternoons in Arcadia are never ending where time comes to a standstill. The waves move but the pattern has no end, and the mind seizes on nothingness and holds it. The colors evoke a sense of all-enveloping warmth that reinforces the idea of finding the magic moment within. The time will come to step away from the picture, but it becomes embedded in the mind's eye. With a moment of stillness it will return, and the peace will return. The sadness is knowing that Arcadia is a place to visit, and that happiness by it's nature requires a contrast to give it value. That's why we can't stay there."

The ocean is ever-changing. Observe it closely, its forms and colors are in constant flux, it’s never still, you cannot exhaust its infinite variety. And yet, it is always and profoundly the same; the ocean symbolizes the passage of time and the persistence of memory. To say that this image of the far horizon and the dying sunlight has broad metaphoric powers would be to belabor the obvious.

BS: I'd love to hear more of your stories.

CC: Here’s one that might be of some general interest: I knew Joe Glasco from 1973 until 1982. After that I never saw him again; I learned of his death when I saw Julian Schnabel's film, Basquiat, on TV in 1998. (As you may know, the film is dedicated to Joe and he is a player in two of the scenes.) My relationship with Joe was intimate, complex, and problematic, but for purposes of this story let's just say that I was Joe's friend and Julian Schnabel was also Joe's friend.

One evening in 1980 Joe got a 'phone call from Julian, who was distraught because the fashion model he had been dating (I can't remember her name) had dumped him, and he had an opening at Mary Boone's gallery in a couple of days. He didn't have enough work ready for the show and was too upset, he said, to work... Joe and I went over to his place. Julian made us dinner (spaghetti with peanut butter sauce). It was a mess; the man was hysterical.

Anyway there were these four little collage drawings sitting on the mantle and Julian was too upset to finish them. Joe suggested that Julian should let me finish the "drawings"- which had pictures of architectural elements and statuary that had been ripped out of old magazines glued on - because, "he has a good eye", as Joe put it. I applied myself to the task while Joe and Julian sat in the kitchen over wine and reefers (Joe was an alcoholic who never drank but he liked to smoke pot). There was a pile of old magazines, glue, and assorted pencils and paints...

When I had finished the drawings to my satisfaction I went back into the kitchen and said, "they're done." Joe and Julian came out and had a look. "Are they really finished?" asked Julian. Joe thought about it for maybe 5 seconds and said. "Yes." Julian smiled through his tears. "Great", he said "That's twenty thousand dollars." I wasn't offered a percentage... but, I will say this for Julian: He was sincere about being insincere.

I met Basquiat in 1979. I was coming home around dawn and there he was, tagging the building that I lived in at 100 Greene St. He was writing SAMO SAMO SAMO SAMO SAMO SAMO all over the place with a can of white spray paint, as he had been doing to everything within reach, in SoHo, for months. I politely said good morning (because he was blocking my door) and asked if he couldn't do us all a favor and maybe use some different colors once in a while, or at least write something else for a little variety. He replied with a rather common racial epithet that I won't repeat here. I didn't think much of him then, and I don't think much of his paintings today.

I have met Mary Boone and been to events in her gallery. I was 26 years old when I met her and I'm not aware of her opinions having influenced me even then. Let's just say that I was not favorably impressed, to put it mildly.

I don't know how Mary Boone or the late Leo Castelli or any of these art-star makers decided who they were going to push. There are probably any number of personal factors involved in each individual case. It doesn't strike me that the process is particularly organized or guided by any grand principle other than the fact that the public doesn't know anything about art and never will.

There must be a thrill that they get from the knowledge that they have the power to take any junkie off the street and make him an art star, and of course there's money to be made.

What I'm trying to get at is that I was a part of that scene and witnessed the rise of both Basquiat and Schnabel, and I don't really think there was anything much to be learned there, apart from some trivia about the players and a few amusing stories.

I think fame and material success for an artist is almost entirely a matter of luck: being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, being capable of sucking up to them in a way that they find gratifying, and having whatever kind of art you are predisposed to make coincide with an existing trend.

On reflection, there's something else that probably should be said here, even though it might appear so obvious as to be not worth mentioning: The reason that Mary Boone helped Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat was because she liked them and liked their work. Further, they were artists who were in step with the fashions of the day, and thus were relatively easy to sell. I really don't think there was anything particularly sinister about it.

BS: What is this conflict you had with David Cohen (art critic for the New York Sun)?

CC: There was never any conflict; quite the opposite. I read his article, "Ambiguity and Intention", published at the Online Symposium on Art and Cognition organized by Noga Arikha and Gloria Origgi in January 2003, and posted at Some of the things David said were thought-provoking (in a disturbing sort of way), and I sent him an email expressing some of my contrasting views on the subject. He replied, and we had a dialogue that Mr. Cohen found sufficiently interesting to publish in the September, 2003 issue of his e-zine, "Art Critical."

I confess that logic is a subject that fascinates me almost as much as painting, and I genuinely enjoy discussions involving inference (a.k.a. arguments) about art.

BS: How have things changed since the 70's and 80's as far as the art world is concerned... is it too corporate now? Do you think younger artists are being exploited more than ever?

CC: So far as I have observed in my lifetime, nothing ever really changes in the art world. Themore things change, the more they remain the same.

BS: How did Schnabel and Basquiat act towards others who did not 'make it' once they became huge?

CC: Basquiat and I took an instant dislike to each other. Schnabel was never really a friend of mine, he was Joe Glasco's friend, and whatever connection I had with him ended when Joe and I parted ways; since I was never a friend of either one, I really don't know the answer to your question.

BS: So tell me more about your experiences... who you've met... the countries you've been to. The influences you've had.

CC: I've lived in the Bahamas, St.Barthelemy, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Sweden, and Mauritius. The two most interesting encounters I’ve had with famous people were George Harrison and Timothy Leary.
I did a light show for the immortal musical genius, Jimi Hendrix, at Curtis-Hixon Hall (Tampa,FL) in 1968, but he only said a few words to me. I was all of 15 years old at the time. I remember thinking, "Jesus-take-me-now!" He was my big hero then. Still is, as a matter of fact...

By far the greatest influence on my life has been Vipassana Buddhism, specifically the practice of meditation on the breath, and Metta (Universal Love), as taught to me by a truly extraordinary man, John Travis. John is the real thing; he’s part of a handful of people who brought this spiritual technology to the West. Vipassana wasn’t taught outside of monasteries until the late 1980s. Anyone who’s interested can learn more about John and Vipassana at his web site, By the way, be forewarned; it’s not for the faint-of-heart.

BS: Tell me more about meeting George Harrison and Timothy Leary. Did they have an impact on your art?

CC: Not directly. George Harrison was an enormous influence on me (and a whole lot of other people) because of his role in popularizing Transcendental Meditation. I began the practice of meditation and eventually became a Buddhist largely because of something George Harrison did by promoting the Hindu teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, at the height of the Beatles' fame and fortune.

My meeting with Mr. Harrison was completely accidental; I met him in a French restaurant in a very out-of-the-way place. He was dining alone, and I approached his table to pay my respects to him. He was extremely gracious, invited me to sit down and have a glass of wine. I was a little drunk.
The thing I remember most about him was that he was profoundly sad, and, it seemed to me, lonely. I remember feeling angry at the thought that this man, who was something of a hero in my mind, did not seem to enjoy his advantages as much as I would have wished him to.

I met Dr. Leary in a Japanese restaurant in NYC; came out of the restroom and suddenly there he was, making a telephone call. I normally don't annoy celebrities but for some reason I felt compelled to speak to him. I thought he was an important man who had shown the courage ofhis convictions, a sort of contemporary intellectual martyr.

He was a tenured psychology professor at Harvard who was fired and subsequently put in prison, you know. The discovery of LSD will one day be seen as the important milestone in human evolution that Tim believed it to be.

Anyone who wants to know the real story should read "Storming Heaven; LSD and theAmerican Dream" by Jay Stevens. Anyhow, Tim gave me his telephone number. A few months later he was a guest in my house. He was a wonderfully amusing man; incredibly energetic and young at heart; unpretentious, just a whole lot of fun to be with. He was a sort of Holy Fool. When he smiled, all of the colors got brighter. I consider it a great honor to have known him, however briefly.

BS: So due to your interest in Vipassana, would you say that your work is an expression of your spirituality? Do find some form of redemption or solace in your work?

CC: Yes, absolutely. The central theme in my painting is the search for stillness, the sort of profound and lucid calm that is the result of meditation or contemplation; another main theme is the relationship between humans, the ocean, and the atmosphere. The intent of my work is to create an ambiance where the spiritual dimension of this relationship can be experienced.

BS: Can you discuss your relationship with Joe Glasco? How did he impact your art?

CC: Joe Glasco influenced me more than any other artist. I had been drafted, and was enrolled in medical school at UTMB, Galveston. The year was 1973. It was called a 2-M deferment; I was supposed to go to Viet Nam as an Army Surgical Officer in one of those M.A.S.H. units after I graduated. President Nixon pulled the plug on the war while I was still in school, so I never actually went over there.

Joe Glasco had a studio in Galveston at that time, in an old cotton warehouse on Strand Ave. Anyway, I met Joe when I was a student, 19 or 20 years old, and he was in his early 50s; about the same age as I am now, come to think of it. Joe was quite a colorful character: he had once been the youngest man ever to be shown in the New York MOMA, had been one of Jackson Pollock’s drinking buddies, etc

Joe and I had the sort of relationship that Oscar Wilde famously referred to as "The Love thatDares Not Speak it's Name." It lasted for about 9 years, off and on. It was problematic, because Joe was gay and I wasn't, really. But I was broad minded and narcissistic enough to be capable of that sort of gender-bending (up to a point), and bisexuality was quite fashionable in those days.

Anyway Joe and I fell in love with each other; so much so that, for a while, it didn't seem to matter what kind of plumbing we had. Of course the relationship was doomed from the start.

Joe was the only actual living role-model I ever had for being an artist. He gave me an art education that couldn't have been bought, not for any price. He could have done a lot more. I have one of his paintings hanging in my studio, and I've often raised a glass to it and said,"Here's to Joe Glasco, who could have given me the World, and didn't." But I've no doubt that his intentions were good. He didn't think I was ready, and he was probably right. It's my misfortune that Joe died when he did, but Death is no respecter of our little plans, is he? He comes whenever he wants to.

Joe didn't have much to say about painting, but he taught me just about everything I know about being a painter, which is an entirely disparate skill. I sure do miss that mean old queer. I think about him often.

His work is largely forgotten at this point in time, and undeservedly so; some of his last paintings really are amazingly good. I believe the largest and best collection of his late work is in the Fred Jones Museum at Oklahoma University. (

BS: So would you say that your paintings are the place you want to go when you pass? Are they a reflection of the kind of balance you would desire in the hereafter?

CC: I don't believe in any kind of hereafter. Now is all there is.

BS: When did you first decide to pick up the brush?

CC: I had a very severe illness when I was seven years old; was in a coma for a few days, and it was not at all certain that I would survive. There was brain damage; when I recovered I had temporarily lost my hearing. It didn't fully come back for six months.

At that time I suddenly developed the ability to draw and paint with a facility, an accuracy, a compositional sense, and a strange, coherent, plunging perspective; something that was astonishing in a child of that age. I started painting then and I'm still at it.

My mother had an MFA and an M Ed, and she taught me the basics. I also read Irving Stone's biography of Van Gogh around that time, and the Van Gogh myth captured my child’s imagination completely. From that point on, there was no turning back; I was going to be a painter, no matter what. No choice, pal. The die was cast.

BS: We have discussed your art, experiences... even aspects of your youth in regards to your painting. What else would you like to say about your paintings?

CC: It's really very simple: Look at the painting. Notice how you feel. Some viewers have found them evocative. Believe it or not, other viewers have been made extremely uncomfortable by them; they really do tend to throw a certain kind of person back on themselves in a way that can be quite confrontational. Threatening, even. How strange is that?

Other people find them completely worthless. "Wallpaper" is a disparaging word that I hear quite often from trendy artists these days. But, hey, they said that about Jackson Pollock as well, didn’t they? What the hell... You can’t please everyone. Some people like them and some don’t.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say to younger painters?

CC: I'm only 53 years old, for Christ's sake! But, OK, here's some advice, with the caveat that I've never been successful, and my advice is probably worth exactly what the reader is paying for it. Don't ever upset yourself over anyone's negative opinion of your artwork. Really, there are only two possibilities: either they're right, in which case you have the opportunity to learn something, or else they're wrong, in which case, why should you upset yourself over some fool's mistaken opinion? It's all good. In either case, you decide.

Question everything in the privacy of your studio. If you've never experienced a crisis of doubt when you realized that everything you had ever done was shit, there's no hope for you. To the World, on the other hand, be confident. Know what your convictions are, and have the courage of your convictions.

As Goethe said, boldness has genius, power, and magick in it. Finally, I think the most important question that we have to ask ourselves, as artists, is one of intent.

What, exactly, is the artist's intention for this thing that they've created? What effect, exactly, is it supposed by the artist to have on others? It seems to me that this particular aspect of the question of intentionality is strangely absent from most so-called critical thinking about contemporary art.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading my interview with Carson Collins. Feel free to leave a comment.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Redreamer said...

An artist is the sum of his experiences, memories and intellect as much as his/her quest for 'effect' in the world... this is good reading because it creates a light in the dark and as artists sometimes it is good to read about other artists especially in moments of doubt. We all have them. Renewal is good. Sometimes being an artist is hard.... and we want to let it go but it won't let go of us........

paul said...

I enjoyed some of this article; the artists I've never heard of, Carson's spiel about art and that your favorite artist is Monet.

Karo Evans said...

hello! this is a great serie of works!Opening new perspective to unfolded minds!

Anonymous said...

SAMO SAMO SAMO lol what more needs to be said than that truly......