Download PDF here: Brakhage-1997
Originally published in Philip Taaffe: Composite Nature, Peter Blum Edition, New York, 1998. The discussions took place on September 6th and 7th, 1997, in Boulder, Colorado. The conversation shifted location between several downtown bookstores and cafes, where Brakhage was always warmly received by the locals as a familiar and slightly eccentric figure who often painted and etched his films in the busy milieu of café-goers and passers-by.
|Stan Brakhage and Philip Taaffe, Lalibela
Studios, New York, 1997. Photo by Peter Bellamy
PHILIP TAAFFE: I’m in the midst of a new adventure. I’m slowly building a vocabulary of images related to natural history. Lately I’ve been delving into the sea world: researching imagery with the idea of eventually making an epic underwater painting. This will involve very basic emblematic creatures—deep sea fish, shells, crustaceans, sea weed, and coral formations. For the most part I’ve been reworking images taken from nineteenth and twentieth century books on natural history. I’m always looking for something so representative of its type that it almost becomes an abstract element—a distillation or encapsulation of all its varieties. It is a characteristic which does not exist in nature, but only through our observation of nature—or more to the point, through my exposure to historical materials concerning nature.
STAN BRAKHAGE: You’re going to recapitulate ontogenesis and work all the way back?
PT: I’m recapitulating something…
SB: You could say you’re working forwards, from simpler creatures and more symmetrical plants. And now with the sea forms and coral in some sense you’re digging into earlier evolutionary designs. I don’t mean to lay a solid equation on you—I know it goes back and forth and shifts around. But is that a fair thing to say, generally?
Metacrinus Angulatus with Smaller Sea Stars, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper, 26 x 20 inches (66 x 51 cm)
PT: I think so, yes. For now, the project has to do with finding quintessential images of very unique groups of creatures. I’m trying very hard to understand how they operate, to animate them, to create gestural mutations through my use of them on a silk screen. I usually work with many screens at a time, juxtaposing images by pushing oil pigment through them onto a surface. In a way, it’s quite a filmic process. There’s density, and there are also weak traces of the image, which has to do with controlling the amount of paint and how it’s put through the screen. Often I work with a brush loaded with very thin paint and turpentine, dripping solvents through the screen to make a watery impression. In this way I can lay down the barest trace of an image. The fish look like ancient fossils, which is just what I was hoping for. I’m trying to move beyond the typical graphic sense of the silk screen medium, counter to the usual procedural ways of working. I’m fighting the means of production itself, doing things that are outside of what I understand has been done. It’s very different from how Warhol would use the silk screen, for example. Andy used it to make the cheapest graphic simulation of industrial packaging, or media production, within the larger scheme of art. It was a reflection on how visual reality is presented to us. I’m trying to turn it into something else.
SB: Maybe it’s presumptuous, but I don’t see any relation at all between your work and Andy Warhol’s. At some point he may have inspired you…
PT: There really is no connection, you’re right. But when you start to use silk screen directly in a painting you’ve got to think about Warhol, you’ve got to take him into consideration. Perhaps that’s why I sought a very different approach. What these are turning into is an accumulation of gestures. The imagery is a pretext for a partial rendering, so they look like broken or fossilized fish. They’re animated, yet they’ve turned to dust before my eyes. The forms are pre-drawn, they’re pre-existing images that are being mutated, gesturally. I think that’s what’s happening now. I’m doing these things to understand what they look like, first of all. Later I’ll be able to use them in a more assimilated way, more of an epic idea, where they will all come together in concert to operate within a larger field or format. These are in an elemental stage of experiment right now, making me acutely aware of further possibilities.
Sea Stars with Coral (Meanrinidae), I, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper, 26 x 20 inches (66 x 51 cm)
SB: Let me jump right in. Here’s one of the ways I feel deeply related to you: the fact that one can point to certain things in your paintings and say, That’s a snake, these are plants, these are leaves — the things you can call them — is absolutely irrelevant. And that’s odd because mostly when something can be named the name will dominate. And the mind will tend to go for metaphor.
PT: I agree with you. The specificity of the image is a starting point, a pretext. It’s a way of describing what’s there, the typological distinctions. I mean, I care about these fish in terms of getting them right and having an adequate variety of them. I don’t care about them until I’ve found a way of doing something else with them. I only find them compelling once they’ve been mutated, turned into something that’s unidentifiable. What do they become? That’s what interests me. I’m less involved with them as scientific specimen per se, or as wonderful old engravings that I have reworked. I’m really interested in where they take me, in their potential as a catalyst, in how they move towards a situation of plenitude, and beyond.
SB: Language is wonderful. I mean, I’m a frustrated poet myself. That’s what I wanted to be since I was nine years old. But it became clear to me that all envisionment that wasn’t illustrative was in some sense intrinsically at war with language, because language is that which delimits vision. You can drive up the road here about fifteen or twenty miles, and there’s a tree with a sign on it that says “The Perfect Tree.” For some reason the Colorado Forest Service has designated this as the perfect tree. They’ve given it some thought, one can presume. It looks superficially perfect, but the minute they put that plaque on it, it’s not the perfect tree. It almost ceases to be a tree.
PT: In a way I’m doing the same thing as the Parks Department. It is a peculiar idea, but maybe what we look for is the perfect imperfection, as a better working model. There are various layers of editorial consciousness that I bring to deciding which materials I will consider for this work. There is the basic question: What do I really want to see? Which has less to do with any idealization than with finding material I can actually work with. For example, in considering our notion of what is a fish, or how to represent some quintessential differences of fish-ness, it’s important to have a wide morphological range in terms of fin structure, body shapes, size, depth of habitation, and so on.
SB: The main thing you do with them, which is very hard, is pry them loose of their names altogether. Was that a conscious wish on your part?
PT: Well, I did that to the ferns, but I ended up using the names that natural science had applied to them, because they made such great titles.
Sea Stars with Coral (Meanrinidae), III, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper, 26 x 20 inches (66 x 51 cm)
SB: I share that fondness for titles, too. I think we both approach the matter of titles in a similar way. They’re memorable, they ring with a kind of honesty. They’re introductions to the vision, and in most cases they’re gentle. You’re a little better at irony than I am. I think “Snake Eyes” is a nice ironic statement. But didn’t we both last night acknowledge that they’re caprices in relationship to the work? They don’t really have much to do with the vision.
PT: It’s perfectly useful to have a title, even though it may have nothing to do in the programmatic sense with the experience of the work. We’re interested in something far more than what the title indicates. It’s merely preparing us for the vision.
SB: Yes, so long as people can throw it away when it gets in their way. A title doesn’t mean to represent the work, because words are one thing and an image is another. Were it not called “La Mer,” I don’t think many people would ever guess that Debussy’s great work was based on the ocean. In fact to call it “La Mer” makes it subject to a kind of usage in the listening, and elsewhere in the world, that limits it. It ties it to clichéd images of ocean, and makes it harder to just listen to the music. But on the other hand, there are a lot of people for whom that’s a great adventure, to listen and ride through whatever imagery might be imposed by the connotations of that title. You know as well as I do that if he called it “Place de la Concorde,” and it were the same music, listeners would make associations with waves of traffic and people moving about.
PT: So the honesty on the part of Debussy was to be true to his chosen subject during the making of these compositions. To whatever extent he succeeded or failed, the influence of the sea would remain the underlying thematic concern. In this way, the music has a connection, emotionally, to the process that engendered it.
SB: He shared with us his source. I’m always in favor of that as the direction to go in titling things anyway.
PT: It gives a little more to the audience, as opposed to numbering…
SB: Yes, you don’t entirely escape the problems of language with numbering, anyway: Number 13 of Jackson Pollock’s paintings from 1957. Well, thirteen is a loaded number, see what I mean? There are problems with numbers just as well…
PT: Do you have problems with certain numbers?
SB: A lot of problems, yeah. Of which I think the best meditation on that subject is the book of Robert Creeley’s and Robert Indiana’s, Numbers.
But as a frustrated poet, titles are my one chance to use language a little bit. I’m not going to let go of that. I know that in a deeper way it would probably be better if I employed numerals in Pollock’s fashion, but I can’t do it. I’m going to insist on my frustrated poetics.
PT: Yes, you must. Your titles are wonderfully evocative, you’re an extremely good writer.
SB: Thank you, but that’s still not a poet, right? In fact it’s almost the opposite. To be a good writer is to almost preclude being a poet. I love that statement in Cocteau’s Orpheus, where he says, “What is a Poet?” And he answers, “One who writes, but is not a writer.” I’m always struggling with that. I don’t know whether I betrayed language or it betrayed me, let’s say it was a mutual betrayal in my crucial late teens. But I’ve had the good luck to be in the company of truly great poets all along the line, like Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson. And people of my own age, Michael McClure, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn.
Painting with Diatoms (1997)
Mixed media on canvas. 54 x 66 inches (137 x 167.5 cm)
PT: You’ve dealt with animals in your work quite a lot.
SB: Oh yes. The one that springs to mind in relation to your present work is The Domain of the Moment. The title is a phrase by William James, where he is attempting to describe that moment when one suddenly feels at the mercy of the universe, like a great emptiness. I won’t try to paraphrase William James, but it’s an incredible concept. As I read his statement about it, that which he feared so much, I came to have this sense from the animals around me that they lived in this condition most of the time. Only humans struggle to be out of it. So I made four portraits: one is a little chicken. One is of a guinea pig, one is a raccoon, who has a kind of interaction with a dog, and then the final one is a snake, eating a mouse. These are multiple superimposition works, very layered.
PT: We’re right on track here. When did you make that?
SB: Late ‘seventies, early ‘eighties. I also made a film called “Bird,” which was inspired by a guy who taught here in Boulder, Robert Bakker, the man most in charge of the idea of the hot blooded dinosaurs. A big bearded guy with his bib overalls, out in the field most of the time, but he’d come into town once in a while. This is dinosaur country. He wrote a book called The Hot Blooded Dinosaur, which I highly recommend. It makes the case, absolutely to my satisfaction, that there’s no reason to have two phylum for birds and dinosaurs—they should be one phylum. When we lived up in the mountains in Rollinsville I had a guinea fowl, and this was the smartest creature in our barnyard, which had goats, chickens, cats, geese, and so on. It was by far the smartest creature among them, and it couldn’t have had a brain larger than a pea. I had a complete vision of it as dinosaur.
PT: I suppose the mind is always looking at related families of forms in trying to put something in it’s proper place. There’s a continuous process of classification going on all the time. We confirm our understanding of something through a steady accretion of similarities, until we come across a difference that makes it fall completely outside of our experience. I’ve noticed that birds are very reptilian. Not only the talons, but the scaly feet are extremely reptilian. I keep these Chinese roosters at the studio, and they have hairs and feathers growing out of these lizard-like claws. They have a distinctly reptilian feeling…
SB: You also have a painting with beetles. I see you’ve named them scarabs rather than beetles…
PT: I called the painting Scarabesque—that was my impression of what Thelonious Monk would have titled that painting. I’ve always admired Monk’s playfulness with titles: Epistrophy, Misterioso, Brilliant Corners. They seem to express the same oddness and angularity of his work.
Black Venus (1998–99)
Mixed media on canvas. 85 x 113 inches (216 x 287 cm)
SB: That sort of titling serves to place the work at one remove from language, in a way.
PT: There’s an interesting book by Lawrence Weschler about the conceptual artist Robert Irwin, which takes its title from an epigram by Wilhelm Schelgel: “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” In other words, to really see something, to observe it, is to forget what it’s called. To have complete communication with the thing itself.
SB: Okay, but that’s ten times, maybe a thousand times harder to do in a representation than it is in everyday life.
PT: Still, philosophically I think it applies. The idea of something arriving at a point of descriptive accuracy that is nowhere near what you expected it would be.
SB: Visually, what we share with language is iconography or hieroglyph. At any moment, however big you make your beetles, they can become hieroglyphs for beetles.
PT: It would be good to get rid of the word and just deal with the image itself, which was Burroughs’s idea.
SB: That’s what I was trying to get at in the beginning of Metaphors on Vision : “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green?’ How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?” It’s an attack on language, actually. The real trick it seems to me is to have it namable but not have that at all interfere with seeing it in the first place. I keep thinking of your snakes, where the name almost accrues to these twirls of shapes so that I’m not distracted from looking at them by the categorization that naming ordinarily insists on. Have you ever considered the way your name is spelled—now first of all can you tell me what is that name?
PT: It’s Irish.
SB: Taaffe. Double “A” and double “F”—that’s bound all the way through your childhood to have had a strong and powerful influence on you.
PT: It’s been constantly misspelled.
SB: But look at it visually. Forget the literary connotations, like you’re struggling to do with everything you make. Look at the relationship between your work and the most powerful thing you possess—your name. Now Philip is spelled with only one “L.”
PT: I was grateful for that…
SB: Although you’ve got an “I” on either side of it, so that’s kind of odd too. For your first name you’ve eschewed having what’s ordinarily the double L. And in your surname you have double doubles, one right after the other. It has to have had some bearing on your work. Who would give me that kind of information is Gertrude Stein, who says your name is that which is most personally received by you of every sound you’re ever going to hear. I’m saying you’re predisposed for repetition, and as Gertrude Stein has proven beautifully, over and over again, repetition does not exist. My favorite of her lessons in this regard is, “Before the flower of friendship faded friendship faded”—a second friendship faded is just as different from the first one as it could possibly be. So you know this lesson instinctively. Even though you could excite a lot of people by increasing your symmetry you eschew that power, although you may play close to it.
Black Column (Asterias Murrayi), I, (1997),
Oil pigment on paper, 22 x 15 inches (56 x 38 cm)
PT: Perhaps this is where my penchant for superimposition and overlays comes from. Or maybe it’s because I imagine somehow that I’m working with color film stock. One reason I use these tissue-thin layers of superimposition in a painting is because I feel I want to simulate the dye sandwich of information on a frame of movie film. I often build an image by staining the surface with consecutive veils of color. I’ve always enjoyed those paintings by Morris Louis for this reason. A painting as a big piece of film.
SB: And it literally is film…
PT: It literally is film. I’m doing a sort of crystallized cinema. The animating part of superimposition has to do with identifying and completing the character of a work. It often happens that after I’ve done an entire phase of a painting, someone will come into the studio and see it as a finished work when in fact it is not. The reason I like to attain such a high degree of resolution before the next and maybe last phase of a work is because this method forces a larger and more specifically realized conclusion.
SB: The best talismanic line I have for superimposition comes from Charles Olson: “Two eyes in every head to be looked out of.” I get that because my eyes go in different directions. In the morning I’m wall-eyed, there’s a weakness in the left eye. Therefore I grew up having not just one vision, but two, quite often. Every time I’d get excited, or tired, or drunk, right away my eyes—particularly the left eye—just drifts. That then led me to perceive in double. I’m also consciously involved with trying to perceive not only what I’m remembering, but how I’m remembering it. It’s all drifting there, like my grandmother drifting now somewhere between my two eyes and their slightly different vision, and what’s coming up in memory is drifting there too. There’s no way to represent that except for superimposition of A, B, C, three film rolls, and sometimes I’ve gone up to six rolls of film.
Pineshell Inner Mussel (Bi-section), (1997).
Oil pigment on paper, 20 x 27 inches (51 x 69 cm)
PT: I also get a better understanding of a painting’s structural requirements by dwelling on it for sometimes long periods of time. In superimposing further imagery, I may finish a work several times. In this manner there is an accumulation of elements and meanings.
SB: For me that accumulation of meanings creates a certain irony which I take it to be at the center of your making, of which one aspect is this involvement with the decorative.
PT: I think it’s important that you mention irony in connection with the decorative because this issue needs to be placed in a larger cultural context. I do try to subvert the decorative in various ways, even though it is not always easy to recognize how this has occurred in a given work. I don’t have a uniform or consistent approach to these things. However, I believe I’m much closer to a minimalist position in that I favor austerity. I generally use decorative motifs in a carefully restricted and iconic way. Also my choices are very much about personal association and memory. I try to invest the work with a psychic energy which makes me less immediately concerned with loveliness of pictorial composition than with finding the best means for holding the energy there.
SB: One way I held my sanity together across that fifteen-year period that I commuted every other week to teach at the Chicago Art Institute, was by visiting all of the Louis Sullivan buildings. That famous Sullivan quote is wonderfully applicable to your work. What we mean by design: the purpose of the flower for the plant, which he seems to be suggesting, is indeed decorative or attractive or sexy—it is also a natural and necessary exfoliation of the leaves and the stem and the whole root system. So what is the present day argument? That the decorative has been used as a pejorative in relation to painting?
PT: Yes, it certainly has, with the exception of Matisse, perhaps. Actually, the origins of these anti-decorative arguments are to be found for the most part in modernist architectural theory. Mies van der Rohe’s reaction to nineteenth century architecture was to strip things down to their bare essentials, to a very focused structure. The use of proportion and planar space was considered embellishment enough—anything more had to be seen as antithetical to progress.
SB: Once stripped to “essentials” a new order of complexity just naturally occurs—creates a new mystery. I know in the arts, the whole of it is for me a mystery, and we’re all in a holy pursuit of the most ancient form of being human. I invoke those caves. There’s nothing older, and they are very mysterious, some of them as much as three miles underground and sealed airtight shut, which is the only reason we have them today, sometimes with only one set of fingerprints in the clay. Made on a subterranean cave wall by tallow light with berry juice—what is that? We’re deep in a mystery here—a holy ancient calling that’s the most intrinsically human thing you could possibly think of.
PT: This is another side of the story that we haven’t discussed, an artist’s motivation coming from a place that is completely private. The drawings are meditations, but they’re also public. In the beginning it is always a completely private vision, but the ambition or the motivation is to give that to the world. I often find myself poised between two poles of thought. The one, as Matisse said, is to make a painting as a luxuriant armchair. And then on the other hand you have Georges Rouault saying, I don’t care if anybody ever sees anything I do, I’m creating this purely as a form of prayer, a private visionary meditation, and that is all.
SB: I’m somewhere between the two, also. I’m envious of Rouault’s being able to say that, and I may someday be given that possibility, as I get older, I can hope. But I’m somewhere in between, because I also feel the burden of an evolution of human consciousness that is moving through the works that I’ve cared most about, by my contemporaries and myself. I feel the burden of this new possibility of exteriorizing moving visual thinking, as it’s never existed before. I also feel a burden of Abstract Expressionism in relation to this new possibility, which for me is the new great frontier of human consciousness. So these are the two burdens that keep me social to an extent. But when I’m working, forget it. I can’t allow any of that in, and I will go to any lengths to exclude it.
PT: This brings up another question I wanted to ask, which has to do with this issue of transcendence, and how our everyday circumstances need to intersect with that point on a constant basis. We create because we feel these ancient sources of motivation. I think we both feel that strongly. We’re doing what we do because there’s something behind us that is propelling us to act out a certain ritual. It’s a form of magical engagement, shaping something that goes against a lot of what we experience. So much of what we do stands in opposition to what we have to confront culturally.
SB: The arts will automatically undermine the given status quo. At the same time, artists tend to be the most conservative people on earth, contrary to the myths that are propagated about them. I’ve said again and again that I’m not to be credited so much for the art which comes to me in a trance state. I’m just running along panting after forces or persuasions or muse–buzzings, or god or angels or whatever you want to call it, just trying not to screw up, to get it somehow so that it has a life of its own. I’m being midwife to this creation. I don’t understand it any better than anybody else. What I’m to be credited for is having stayed alive to be able to do that in an incredibly hostile time. When everything was out to destroy and defeat me, I kept on reading, and opening myself up, so I had as wide a life experience to pour through me, and as deep a comprehension of other artist’s lives and makings coming through me, and I tried to be honest about what I was doing. Honesty with no sense of hubris, as if I knew what was right and what was not. I cannot praise something that I’m unable to see. I have to be able to comprehend in order to make art. That’s got me in the worst trouble imaginable.
PT: And that is why you are one of the great sole practitioners of the art of cinema. Any adversity I have had to face in order to do what I do, I’m sure pales by comparison to the obstacles you have been forced to contend with. Nothing less than an act of sheer transformative will would have enabled you to preside over those magnificent magic lantern poems of yours.
Metacrinus Angulatus, (1997).
Mixed media on canvas, 27 x 36 inches (69 x 91 cm)
SB: Well thank you. It is the magic of art, its transformation possibilities, which people most fear. Formal aesthetics contain magic powers, but most people don’t know how to comprehend art aesthetically. Many artists also eschew aesthetics for direct magic power in their works. All my life I’ve witnessed the perils of the practice of magic by artists. Most people just don’t have the wisdom and the strength to wield this power. Artists are all the time in this category, right? There are great dangers in the arts. Abstraction is very dangerous—as you know very well.
PT: I’m glad you said that. As far as I’m concerned it’s got to be dangerous if it’s going to me any good.
SB: Very dangerous. That’s why you’re being very careful. On the other hand to make a representation of something risks being either stupid or facile or passé. And it is also dangerous. When you make a picture of something, in a way that’s voodun, and it’s not been good for humanity. White Magic is for me. My whole case against Black Magic is simple: you have to move a mountain, so you apply your energy, the same as if you were moving it a shovelful at a time, for however many generations it takes. You pass that energy on in a useful form to others who also share in it, until finally that energy has been accrued, and then if you have to you can move the mountain because it’s already been paid for. Black Magic says move it now, pay later. The temptation of Black Magic is that people always have good reasons—beneficent, humane reasons for needing to do some big thing. Like go all the way to the back brain and start forward. But it has to be paid for a shovelful at a time. Or else, like the installment plan, you’re in debt, with interest. If you’re borrowing against the future you have to pay the interest, right? There’s great power involved, and what kind of a saint can resist that kind of power—when you can put someone to death just by incantation. How many are saintly enough to exercise that power beneficently?
PT: We’re surrounded by these dangers. We live in a time in which the whole possibility of human survival is really very much called into question, and the dangers are increasing. They’re certainly not diminishing. It’s curious you should mention incantation because it’s an activity that bears a certain parallel to the art-making process. I made an experiment a couple of years after I got out of art school. I was living in the General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal seminary in Chelsea. One night I went to see Antonioni’s The Red Desert. When I came back to my room I started working. I had a cheap little tape recorder on the drawing table, and I wanted to do my version of The Red Desert. I wanted to get inside this haunted industrial landscape, this weird sensuality, this sense of demise that I recognized in the movie. I was drawing with oil sticks, and as I started making these gestures I began speaking into the microphone…
SB: You were giving these lines characters…
PT: That was part of what I was trying to do. I suppose the experiment was to see how long the vocal narrative and the linear or gestural narrative could coexist, keep generating one another, before language fell away.
SB: And probably you talked less and less the more you got involved in the work. You see how comparable that is to Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas and Meditations: every word must be a character, as if in a novel, so that “a” and “the” have lives as they move through the poem, until finally it’s a cast of thousands that are murmuring their own stories. (I’m very dependent upon the wisdom and friendship of Stein scholar Ulla E. Dydo for much of my thought here.) The larger truth behind that is we are made up of particles that are absolutely unique, with no two alike. Certainly these cells have likenesses unto all of the cells that make up our body, but let’s just stick with the brain for the moment. The brain has all these cells inside, and each of them is having its own individual life. They have parts you can name, each has a nucleus, and a connective tissue that looks a certain way, but no two are alike. They are then variously cooperating in whatever it is we are, or imagine ourselves to be in some conglomerate sense. But there is no actual or literal space in there. And unless your painting is in some sense being true to what the individual lives of those cells are, you’re not evolving in any way.
PT: One thing I want to reiterate about this process I was describing when I was speaking into the microphone and making these marks and trying to refer to my immediate memory of this film, is that it was some form of incantation. And I believe there is a connection between this previous exercise and my present incantatory use of silkscreen. The repetitive printing of these animals and fish takes place in trance-like episodes, where the drawing, or the shifting of the paper, is an exercise in getting someplace else, in bringing them into a more elemental condition, perhaps. The best of them seem like entrance ways to another reality. They suggest something which is compelling beyond themselves.
SB: When we go through the womb we have fins at one point, we have gills, we look very much like those curled rocks we find in fossils. We are of earth in that sense. Although I firmly believe that it does not matter if anybody else ever sees it, you cannot just think it, you have to put it into material. Once you put it into material it’s in the world. We are here to work with material, we are not walking on water. Just sitting and thinking it is not enough. But if in the making you want to be true to the brain, if you want it fully in the painting as the mind, then all you can achieve is fish-ness: not fish, but fishness. I don’t know how else to put it. Because otherwise you’re making a symbol that’s pointing to something outside. Brains do not have fish stuck in them, they have fishnesses, they have an energy in there, they have traces of something that can be invoked as fish.
Oil pigment on canvas,
22 x 30 inches (56 x 76 cm)
|Radiolaria, Milleporidae, (1997).
Oil pigment on canvas,
22 x 30 inches (56 x 76 cm)
PT: We’re getting into difficult semantic territory here, but I think you’re loosely referring to the Platonic thought-form, the image we implicitly know to exist, from which all particular examples are derived. the fish was certainly a dominant Paleo-Christian symbol.
SB: But instead of having a symbol that gets more and more hardened, like the valentine heart, you clash these things, or imprint them doubled. They double over on each other, they start reverberating. You may have the shadow of the same thing, or a near-symmetry, on opposite sides. I particularly think of your leaves in this respect. The snakes accomplish this in a different way, because there are so many of them, all coiled in different directions, it all might be one that your brain is juggling around in these various ways, and being effected to a multiplicity of such.
PT: It’s just that I don’t want emptiness. I generally have a negative reaction to empty abstract minimalist paintings, unless they are by really great practitioners. I prefer to see something replete with feeling and imagery, not this static inert artifact. I want a generosity of being, of spirit. I want people to see and think about that. And even if the drawing is reduced and ends up only having one thing in it, that is a result of my having wanted there to be more.
SB: Consonant with your working on the sea shells, you’re going into chickens?
PT: Well I’m looking ahead. I’m not ready for the primates yet, but I’m working in that direction. I want it all, you see. I want to interact with it all.
SB: I’ll drink to that! Here’s to having it all! Of course one of the heroes of the Cantos of Ezra Pound is Linnaeus, for ordering the plant kingdom. Another is Louis Agassiz, because he went always to the source, and wrote a kind of spiritualized science. Do you know Agassiz’s work? There’s a marvelous little book of his writings, with an introduction by Guy Davenport, from the Beacon Press. Agassiz was one of the great naturalists of the nineteenth century, from Harvard, who got his whole reputation destroyed because he opposed Darwin. So he got shot down by politics. In all the ways that he opposed Darwin he was absolutely right. It’s just that he overlooked that Darwin was more right, in ways that were going to be more important. But for Darwin, like any great man, like Freud, the work was 80% mistakes, and Agassiz took a trip up the Amazon and pegged every one of them. He made incredibly fine drawings. You would love Agassiz. Pound uses him in the Cantos, where a graduate student is drawing a sunfish, and Agassiz is having him keep at it, week after week, and the fish is rotting away, and after three weeks Agassiz says, “Ah, we’re beginning to get somewhere…” There was a deep and profound relationship between naturalism and drawing in the nineteenth century. Not this snapping a picture, but feeling your way along.
PT: Yes, linear investigation. I’m working a lot right now with nineteenth century engravings and I love the personalities that emerge from such intricately woven detail. Nature drawings are generally far more descriptive and more tactile than most photographs. Although there are some great nature photographers?the Czech V. J. Stanek is a personal favorite of mine.
SB: Photographs have the presumption that is the disaster of my whole field of making, namely, that it presents a reality, a mirror held up to nature. And it does not. My only hope is now that there’s digital technology and people can cheat and recreate any “reality” they wish, that finally photography will no longer have that burden—that it represents reality. Which was a lie in the first place. Not represents, even, but that it is the literal imprimatur of reality.
Oil pigment on paper, 26 x 20 inches (66 x 51 cm)
PT: Although the early experiments in photography the cyanotyping, the sun pictures—these were minor miracles in their own right.
SB: They had more claim to representing reality at that point, but they didn’t make that claim because those were humble people. Do you know what cinematographer means? “Writer of movement.” That’s what we do.
PT: That’s beautiful. The Pencil of Nature was Henry Fox Talbot’s title for the first book of published photographs. Anna Atkins was certainly a precursor of this same aesthetic. She was the first woman photographer, really. She made extraordinary cyanotypes in the eighteen forties and ‘fifties. She came from a well-established English family who were Members of Parliament. Her father was very friendly with Fox Talbot. She had access to unlimited possibilities in setting up an elaborate technical apparatus for doing what she did. She was an important pioneer of the cyanotype.
SB: I don’t know her work at all. I know Julia Margaret Cameron, very deeply. Always more to learn about…
PT: In Edinburgh last month I went to the library at the Royal Botanical Gardens. They have an extraordinary collection of nature-printed books. I examined a fascinating group from the seventeenth century which bore Dutch and Sanskrit inscriptions. The Dutch were in Ceylon and India, and there were numerous expeditions to collect plant specimens there. They had a volume on edible Indian berries. The pages of the folios themselves were quite large to accommodate a good portion of the actual specimen. The Sanskrit names were handwritten by the Indian botanists working on the project. Somehow they would take the flowering specimen, coat it with colored ink, and put it directly through a printing press. The results were unbelievable, beyond anything of this sort I’ve ever seen before.
SB: You’ve made me realize that I’m overlooking one of the most obvious parallels to your present work—people’s pressing of flowers, in family Bibles. As a child these never looked like flowers to me. They were always more associated with the Bible, or whatever book they were in, than something that would grow out in the dirt.
PT: That’s right, they became attached to the book, they became a part of the book…
SB: In fact, literally. Usually they left their little imprint on the pages of the book…
Pterocera, Voluta, Venus, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper, 22 x 30 inches (56 x 76 cm)
PT: That’s a slow motion form of nature printing. There was another man, an Englishman by the name of Henry Bradbury who produced four volumes on English seaweed in the early eighteen sixties, using his own nature printing method. I recently acquired a set of these. He invented a process whereby he would place the seaweed on lead plates, and run the lead through a printing press, and somehow turn that into a printing plate, an electrolyte process or some such thing. Then he would apply this spray-font kind of inking directly on the metal sheet, where the color would become mixed in these marvelous striations. That also made a great impression on me.
SB: There was a man in Bennington, Vermont, who in the teens and twenties of this century devoted himself completely to photographing the snowflake.
PT: Ah yes, I know about him, W. A. Bentley was his name. Dover reprinted the book of his work.
SB: God bless Dover Books. Without freezing to death, he devoted his life to giving us these imprints, which do seem to suggest that it might actually be the case that no two snowflakes even superficially look alike, despite there being only about five or six forms available to the ice crystal.
PT: Then there’s Karl Blossfeldt, the botanical professor in Germany in the nineteen twenties, who did those magnifications that have such an eerie anthropomorphic architectural feeling about them. I’m sure you’ve seen them. He brought out a book called Urformen Der Kunst. He was a professor of botany, and he made this book for his students. They were magnifications, usually on a gray background, of just a poppy seedling, for example, or leaf forms or stems. They are lit such that the architecture of the specimen becomes realized in a very particular way. No one else has managed to take photographs quite like this. It’s completely memorable, the way they are monumentalized. They’re very dry and formal looking, but they have a powerful iconicity. What is it that these forms satisfy, which in nature are so improbable and in many cases outrageous? I suppose it’s a search for significant form wherever we can find it. But what is the transformation that takes place, when these intuitive principles are applied to film, or to painting?
SB: OK, I’m going to make a guess, Philip. What you’re doing is burrowing into the back brain. The appeal of symmetry lights up the back brain, which is our oldest brain. But at the same time that you do this burrowing, the thing that has been important to me, which I said to you right away when we first met, is that…
PT: Symmetry is death. Nature forbids symmetry.
SB: Yes, and you avoid it. I fear symmetry very much. I’ve used it in some films, but always delicately off balance. It is to me, if not necessarily evil, something tangent to that: dangerous.
Bal Astérie (1999)
Mixed media on line. 96 x 117-3/4 inches (243 x 299 cm)
PT: Do you think it’s the danger, or the appeal of danger, encoded within symmetry, or does the use of it act as a kind of charm against something more dangerous? A protective charm to deal with these dangerous issues in order to stop something from unraveling that would be truly catastrophic?
SB: Yes, truly catastrophic would be to lose the back brain. Or to pretend that there weren’t things that seem to be happening again and again, or to pretend there weren’t things seeming to be symmetrical. So the trick is very delicate. Things can seem symmetrical, like a snake, but it’s quite clear right off the bat they are not. Language either becomes at one with the shape or it ceases to exist and then it’s irrelevant. To try to pretend that we haven’t named things, to try and pretend that we can go back and be primitive is to me the horrible danger. That’s what so many people try to do as they go through their teens over and over again, try to pretend they’re primitive. All of Germany decided it wanted to be primitive again and shuttled eight million people into the furnaces. You avoid the name dominating, and you avoid symmetry dominating. And those in a dry way are two of the most interesting things about your work. In the wet way, you’re burrowing into the back brain, from which ground you now say to me you want to evolve the human form.
PT: Well, I want to be able to move in that direction. I’ve never really addressed the figure…
SB: Because you feel constricted by an abstract language?
PT: No. This abstract language you refer to applies to much of twentieth century painting. Is Francis Bacon an abstract painter or a figurative one? Although he addresses the human figure in a considerable way, he uses an abstract vocabulary. In his work these distinctions are a mirage.
SB: Yes, but the name is still in there. I think you probably want to do it in a way that the name is irrelevant, like toe or arm or elbow…
PT: I haven’t yet found a way to introduce the human face in my painting.
SB: No one’s ever tried to do it so that it didn’t dominate as representation.
PT: I have to wait for the right combination of factors.
SB: You’re trying to avoid representation?
PT: I’m trying to empower myself to be able to come to terms with it, because as an artist I feel a certain responsibility to do so. I want to find my own way of approaching it, in gradual steps, starting from the diatoms, the ancient ferns, the deep sea creatures, and these other ancient beings that are obliging me to touch upon them. Also I’m afraid of them disappearing. My obsession with all of this is an attempt to catch up with the natural world, in a sense.
The Blue Crabs (2002)
Oil pigment on canvas. 26-1/2 x 35 inches (67 x 89 cm)
SB: There you’re an American artist in the same position as the Hudson River School: what’s tragic about their paintings is as we look at them now, we realize everything they painted is essentially gone.
PT: Now there are nuclear reactors on the Hudson River…
SB: Or consider Albert Bierstadt, who came out here to the West. In general he’s one of the most popular painters of the Hudson River School, and for that reason he’s not gotten the breaks critically that I think he deserves. He came out here and painted these Rocky Mountains, and now they’re mostly gone, or about to be.
PT: What do you mean, through erosion?
SB: No, through people throwing tin cans around, and building nuclear reactors! They’ve hollowed out one entire mountain in Colorado Springs that’s called Little Washington, it’s the Strategic Air Command. It’s supposed to be America’s last ditch defense. They’re the ones who will launch the final Armageddon, it’s an entire mountain that’s been completely hollowed out…
PT: Well there’s a dilemma here, in that I don’t want to be nostalgic at all. We can’t be nostalgic, we have to face reality. But how does one face this situation, especially given the debased level of abstraction throughout culture and society?
SB: You said you want to have it all, which I thought was very funny, and now we’ve added the weight to that. Nothing less than all of it will do. The problem is, there’s only part of it that you’re in charge of. We have to take our instructions. We don’t know from who or what, but we must not deviate too far to the right or left of those instructions because if we do we’re worse than wasting time, we’re committing blasphemy, then we’re on dangerous grounds.
|Crabs (Cancer Ruricola), IV, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper,
20 x 26 inches (51 x 66 cm)
|Fistularia with Lobsters, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper,
28 x 35 inches (71 x 89 cm)
PT: What is this fear of fern forests, Stan, can we get to the bottom of this?
SB: [Laughs] They’re too much the same on one side as the other, though they’re not identical. But they give the impression that this might be so, and this makes me very nervous.
PT: They’re also self-generating, self pollinating, I believe. What about the pleasure principle as an impetus for making something? I will honestly tell you that my most fundamental decisions as to what gets incorporated into the work and how I go about doing things, are closely determined by what I anticipate the pleasure yield to be. Not to say that those decisions won’t also be agonizing as they are played out.
SB: Yes, of course, and you need to have your own bag of tricks to stay alive. But let’s face it, the other thing you’re doing when you’re making marks, and talking into the tape recorder, as you have done, anthropomorphizing those marks, and creating a story—you’re trying to give yourself something to hang on to, something as solid as a detective story.
SB: Yes, while in fact you are drifting off into this terrifying realm. Because those marks end up essentially…
PT: Haunting you…
SB: Because they are essentially unnamable. So you’re protecting yourself, you’re holding on to something. I also invent little stories, or I whistle colors, I sing: red red red green, blue blue blue purple. Or else I talk to myself, hang onto little stories, little scenarios. But finally that isn’t going to have much to do, if anything, with what eventually the work is when finished. I’ve just used these little tricks to survive the making. And then when the work is done, it has its own life, and it doesn’t care what I did to get it there.
PT: It’s true, at a certain point there is another phenomenon that takes over. At the start of the working process you input all of this information, throw all these clues out there, and the work starts to take shape. Then at a certain point what you’re doing is just rounding out the identity of this thing. Allowing this set of characters, this theater you’ve concocted, to have the most complete identity possible: seeing that identity in its totality and just letting it speak. At a certain stage I recognize the character of a given work, and I’m attempting mediumistically to let that character come out in whichever ways it needs to resolve itself. After a certain point you’re just following the clues. So these formations, these drawings I’m doing now, are putting the clues out there. In seeing them around the studio, they’re going to take me in a direction I want to go in. Those are the steps, and we have to put one foot in front of the other, and build up the clues, and then follow the story to its ultimate conclusion. It’s like judging a more or less correct path, hacking one’s way through a jungle and then finding your way back. Reaching a destination, and then being able to retrace your steps and knowing the journey that you’ve been on.
Passage III (Rainbow Fish), 1997–98
Mixed media on canvas. 26 1/2 x 36 1/2 inches (67 x 93 cm)
SB: When you make those marks, you’re leaving little bread crumbs so you can find your way back through the forest—and you’re hoping some little bird doesn’t come along and eat them up. Humanly, the individual maker, he or she, has grounds that are essentially neurotic. Usually these are the cross-wires of being a teenager, and are essentially sexual, there’s no way around that. The kinky bather paintings of Cézanne are absolutely essential in order for him to get to Mont Saint Victoire, or at least to the apples, let’s go that far. At some point he had to go back to that again, those really embarrassing slimy sexual distresses of Cézanne. Of peasant Cézanne, getting his rocks off…
PT: Or getting rocks thrown at him, probably.
SB: Yes, but at any rate he has to go back to the Bathers and try to make a resolve between the apples and the human body. I know they’re great, I have great respect for them, but I have never cared for his bathers. For that matter I prefer his earlier, more honest teenage “sex” paintings to the bathers, but I know he had to go back and touch those roots again, in order to do Mont Saint Victoire. That’s a fulcrum. You cannot deny the neurotic roots of the making—and the more embarrassing the better. So in that regard my best advice to students is, don’t come out and photograph the Flatiron Mountains yet again, or make an imitation Hollywood movie. Show us something that’s so embarrassing you can hardly bear to bring it to class. Now for me the social corollary for that is the avant-garde. You’ve got to have your avant-garde: it’s embarrassing, it’s stupid even, it’s amateurish in the worst sense of the word, as well as the best, and etymologically speaking the best sense means “lover”—amateur. But also in the worst sense, the puffed-up self-important drunk at the end of the bar, telling you his uninteresting story. Uninteresting because there’s no solution for it. You can’t solve his problem by giving him ten bucks, or a blow job, or anything. It’s useless. It’s uninteresting. So that’s the avant-garde. And the arts need it to bust open into new areas, just like people need the embarrassment of their teenage years.
PT: I once read an interview with the poet John Wieners. When asked if he had a theory of poetry he said, “I try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of.”
SB: Wonderful. There’s a great story that Charles Olson told me about John Wieners. When John had his crack-up, and Olson and Robert Duncan went to visit John in the asylum, he didn’t know anyone, couldn’t recognize anyone. They were giving him shock treatment, followed by hot and cold water baths. Olson and Duncan kept going to visit him, many times. And the doctor said, “I can’t give him too many more shock treatments. If he doesn’t come out of it, he’s going to end up in the burnt-out ward.”
PT: The shock corridor…
SB: Yes. He had no memory left at all, then he began to come out of it. And he wrote a poem. He didn’t know who he was, couldn’t remember his past, didn’t recognize anybody, but he wrote a poem in the style of John Wieners. And this was the origin of Olson’s statement that Style is Soul. It is the visible manifestation of soul, irreducible. And his proof was John Wieners, at this point. Speaking of poets, it interests me that you chose to put that Novalis poem in your catalogue.
PT: Yes, Hymn to the Night.
SB: Was that your first catalogue?
PT: In fact I think it was. It was published in Hamburg
SB: Have you seen my Last Hymn to the Night: Novalis?
PT: No, I haven’t.
SB: That’s a short film, maybe four and a half minutes, where I scratched sections of that poem onto the film, so the words appear as electrical fires interwoven with paint. The other version I made this past year, pulling out from under all this awful cancer treatment I’ve been through. I tried to imagine what Novalis’ last Hymn to the Night might have been, when he’d be beyond language. It’s a twenty-five minute film, the most elaborate hand-painted film I’ve made. Why was Novalis important to you, so early on?
PT: I just felt very strongly about that poem. I was reading it over and over again, in a book Dick Higgins translated. We reprinted part of the poem and may have neglected to attribute the English translation to him.
SB: He’s a good man. Published Gertrude Stein’s complete Making of the Americans. People keep waiting for the Great American Novel without realizing it’s already been written. So you felt an affinity with Novalis. Did it have to do with his life, his loss of his loved one?
PT: I guess at the time I was feeling like a stray soul. These words touched me very deeply, and I was hoping that what I was feeling was in the work.
SB: It was a beautiful gesture, because the poem and the paintings are not at all illustrative, they’re just concomitant.
PT: The text was a way of assuring myself of the path that I was taking at that time. I can’t remember very well my exact motivation, but I think I wanted to echo the Romantic obsession with irretrievability. It’s hard to talk about these things now.
SB: I think it’s important to do so. If you can, then it’s your duty. If it’s not interfering with your real work.
PT: Usually I just try to learn from a situation. You’re a professor, I’ve always admired professors, although I don’t think I could ever be one.
SB: Look, a large piece of that is a joke. Because really what I’m asked to profess, for the most part, is Hollywood movies, because that’s all anybody knows or cares about, particularly in a place like this. And I never saw a Hollywood movie in my whole life that deserved more chit chat than what we might do right now after dinner. But that’s what’s been given to me. So I try to combine some short poetic films with every feature, so they get some sense of a real art of the cinema…
Painting with Radiolaria and Milliporidae (1997–98)
Mixed media on canvas. 33 x 39 inches (84 x 99 cm)
PT: What are some of the movies you’re showing in this “Sex, Death and Cinema” course? Maybe I should come to Boulder more often.
SB: You’re certainly welcome. I’d like to convince you to come and live here, or at least try it. Well, let’s see, Doctor Strangelove, that’s Sex and Death…
PT: Yes, I love that.
SB: A lot of movies qualify for this category if you stop to think about it. It’s a major theme in the West. The Puritans have left us this burden, that if people have sex, death has to threaten them. Or else they have to be dead first, and then they can have sex. I show as many great films as I can get away with, but for the most part you can’t overdo that or the students wouldn’t come away with anything, you know? A lot has to be directed right there where their culture is, what they grew up crawling around on the rug looking at on TV. Then I show one or two short independent films, and if I don’t overdo that, they’ll accept it. Who did you study film with when you were at school?
PT: Robert Breer I remember quite vividly: you must know him.
SB: Oh, what a lovely spirit—I would not have sensed that he would have had much at all to do with what you are doing.
PT: Well, he was very sympathetic and watched me closely—I think I made some interesting work in his classes…
SB: Was filmmaking part of your focus?
PT: In fact that was an important focus for me when I was in art school. It was a very critical moment for painting. One had to really justify the idea of presenting a painted object. I made paintings and drawings in art school, but mostly I was doing photography, animation, and conceptually oriented installation.
SB: Did you go to Anthology Film Archives?
PT: I practically lived at Anthology Film Archives when it was on Wooster Street. I went there constantly and saw many of your films.
SB: You’re so lucky to have had Bob Breer—I’d loved to have been in a class with him. There are people who tell jokes that are funny and that’s great, but with him it’s just pure wit.
PT: A very smart guy and a wonderful filmmaker.
SB: The air’s titillated all the time around him—you know—so humble and beautiful and sweet. He’s one of my favorite people. A lot of people ask me, why don’t I teach filmmaking, which I do not, and never have, and have always adamantly refused to do so. No one understands the creative process well enough, certainly not in these institutes in which I make my living, to give me the grounds on which I could do such a thing. Firstly, I would have to be chosen, and then in turn choose those who’d chosen me to be my students. It would probably never be more than one or two at a time. There would have to be some disclaimer, because the path they’d be taking would be more dangerous than football, or chemistry class, and that would have to be understood up front by them and by me.
PT: I’m sure these institutions could invent a new form of casualty insurance for you.
SB: The first thing I would teach them is how to get out of a trance, because many are lost to insanity every year along these paths. People can’t get out, or they get stuck in certain habits that destroy them, across several years. One saw tremendous destruction in the 1960s. So I would have to have ways to treat them for this eventuality. Also we would have to be able to meet anytime we wanted to, day or night. Not only would there be no grades, but there would be no system other than that that would evolve as part of a personal relationship, because I would have to get to know them very well before I could begin teaching them things. Otherwise I would start interfering with their creative making, because finally the only thing they have to give is that which has never been given, that which is absolutely unique. And how do I know for sure there are generalities that you can tell people, protective measures to take? You go too far, and you’ve suddenly precluded what was the only reason for them to be a maker. That’s the danger…
|Long-Tobacco Pip-Fish (Fistularia), (1997).
Oil pigment on paper,
27 x 36 inches (69 x 91 cm)
|Multile Smaller Fish, Vertical Drawing, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper,
26 x 20 inches (66 x 51 cm)
PT: It’s virtually impossible to teach painting, although many try. I never learned anything in art school about how to make a painting. For that matter I’ve never taken a printmaking class in my life.
SB: That’s what I was going to ask you, and I suspected that was so. But you did have people that kind of helped you to protect yourself, were kind to you and buffered you…
PT: …And who taught me to think critically, not to accept received ideas or opinions so easily. My best teachers put great demands upon me, forced me to demonstrate my intentions, to do things that would stretch my own boundaries. They would guide things along in a kind but firm way, without any bullshit. Saying, you might do better if you try this, then leaving the rest up to me. I had to make use of my own resources, to think these things through.
SB: Robert Duncan and Jess Collins saved me. I arrived in San Francisco having a nervous breakdown, with this whole world seeming not for me, and they and others, like Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth and Miriam Patchen, gave me the sense that there were people like me in the world who were doing great things. That you could be strange and unusual and that it was possible to survive.
Long, Deep-Sea Toothy Fish (Chauliodus Sloanii), II, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper, 38 x 24 inches (97 x 61 cm)
PT: That was the importance of William Burroughs for me. At sixteen or seventeen years old, when I was reading those books for the first time, he instantly broke down all these barriers for me, shattered this sense of what was possible, and really made me believe in myself and my own sensibility and who I was. He gave me a sense that there was something to explore within myself, and I should be proud of this, that there was a lot to look forward to and experiment with. That’s what Burroughs gave me.
SB: He had to have been good at that because he did it for Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and so many others. So really what he was was a great teacher. I rely very much on the wisdom of my many mentors, mostly poets, to guide me.
PT: There is something that occurred to me that I want to ask you about: Let’s say you meet an average citizen in a hardware store, someone who doesn’t know anything about your work. You get to talking, they ask you what you do, and you say, “I’m a filmmaker.” And they reply, “Oh really, what kind of films do you make?” I would imagine you probably have a great way of responding. But if you were to say, “My films are abstract,” suddenly this is something that this person, this everyman, would have a difficult time hitching in his or her own mind. When I meet someone like that, a lay person if you will, and they ask, “What kind of paintings do you make?”—the last thing I want to say is, “I make abstract paintings.” Because I am afraid of the vacuous associations that this person might make about the nature of what I do. The vast majority of abstract painting is completely banal…
SB: It’s dangerous enough in America to admit you’re an artist at all. That alone can get you killed, particularly here in the West. Up in Rollinsville, in the bar there, or Wyoming for sure. If you go north of here they’ll shoot you at first provocation for being an artist.
PT: Yet I’m concerned with identifying my cultural role and explaining that to people who need an explanation. I try to provide as much satisfactory information as I can to satisfy their interest. I may talk about historical referencing, types of architecture and symbolism, and so forth. But to say you make abstract films is a wonderful thing, because in a sense people’s imagination will flower out in all kinds of directions. For me to say that I make abstract paintings is a terrible handicap.
SB: You could tell them you’re a geologist. And then if you get to know them rather well, after the third drink, you could tell them you’re a geologist of the imagination. Or geographist. As you move into shells and so on, you also move into geography. Of course that’s the name of Guy Davenport’s great book, The Geography of the Imagination, which I recommend very highly. I define abstract vision as moving visual thinking, but normally I’d still be regarded as an abstract artist. I just tell them I’m making visual music. Music for the eyes, like we have music for the ears. They don’t quite know what it is, but they do seem to accept that. I think it was Walter Pater who said “All the arts aspire to music.” It’s a great truth.
PT: And it happens to be the most abstract art!
|Calligraphic Tail Fish
(Porogadus Miles), III, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper,
26 x 20 inches (66 x 51 cm)
|Tetra (Hyphessobrycon pulchripinnis), (1997).
Oil pigment on paper,
22-1/4 x 30 inches (56 x 76 cm)
SB: That’s it. But on the other hand, when you work with film, as I’m also photographing again and not just handpainting, you do get images of things that are namable. Now here’s my sense of what a picture is: a picture is a collection of namable things, framed. And I do mean the pun in “framed”—i.e. that the collection is biased. Now when you think about it, that definition is at least 50% literary. That’s OK: the arts veer toward each other. Painting veers toward music. Films veer toward literature. They all jostle each other in some way. But at the same time, when the chips are down, you’ve got to go for ground. Of all the things you’ve said, in various interviews that I’ve read, you know full well that we have to go to ground now or there’s no evolution, and we do just become footnotes to what else was done. Because the highfalutin’ stuff has been done and tried in all various different ways…
PT: What do you mean when you say go to ground?
SB: In your case I would say it means go to the back brain and build up from there. That’s the quickest way you’ll get to the human. Oddly by going to the extreme before human.
PT: That’s my instinct. I feel it’s an inadequate situation that we’ve inherited, through modernism in the twentieth century until. now. We’ve been consumed with all of this rupture, fracturing, splintering, the obliteration of precedence.
SB: All of this disposable hanky-panky…
PT: It has been the nature of the avant-garde that it always answers its own questions. It always goes its own way and finds its own level. But where do we imagine we’re taking things? I see myself as engaged in a type of research that is intended to bring us forward, to provide some new options. It is an autonomous quest, but it should result in alternatives, in wider circumstances for the production of visual culture. It’s supposed to set up that possibility, not close it down. That’s the nature of the activity.
SB: In other words you want to make sure you don’t get painted into a corner, that you don’t paint yourself into a corner…
PT: Certainly one must try to avoid that. I must say, I think I’ve managed relatively well thus far.
SB: I’ll give you that right off the top, but still you’re going to worry about that, at times, aren’t you, in the dark night? Plenty have. You see people being bumped off to the right and left, all around.
PT: At the same time I don’t think artists are really that much different from anyone else, except that we are called upon to do exactly what pleases us, and what we feel will interface with our given cultural reality in a significant way.
SB: Happily you do many different kinds of paintings, you don’t allow yourself to get stuck. Yet they’re always your style, one senses it’s you, it’s one spirit. Curiously I feel you more in relation to Mark Rothko than to Barnett Newman, who would seem to be a more obvious choice by your earlier paintings. I don’t know quite why that is. Every now and again there’s a painting that’s made up of this kind of variable field, with shapes in it, which makes me think of the early Surrealist works of Rothko.
PT: Yes, those pictures are quite important to me. They were the product of the kind of cataclysmic breakdown of civilization that mars or scars the brain, and scars our souls in some deep way, so that we have to start again somehow. Abstract Expressionism was a moment that had everything to do with the devastation of the Second World War, and the very real, tragic, historical factors that the entire world had to confront.
SB: I feel as strongly as you, speaking for Abstract Expressionism. It’s not just “America’s greatest contribution to art,” which I think it also is, but a supremely decisive moment in human history. You seem to me to be involved very directly with a present-day evolution from Abstract Expressionism. I don’t mean to put that on you as any kind of a burden, and it may not be how you see yourself at all, but it has to do with lineage. Art grows through history like a tree; it has a natural evolution. Some branches go off into nowhere and the fruit dies on the vine, so to speak. Although to be part of a tradition doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to produce the next branches.
PT: This again connects us to the idea of maintaining some tribal direction, and encourages me to believe that the essential responsibility of the artist at this stage in the twentieth century is to heal: to tell stories, to bring things together, to unite the elements of our artistic heritage. The task is to start making connections between things, rather than throwing them away in an act of dismissal or rabid consumption. There’s no question that a process of rupture and refocusing is necessary for the development of new art. What I am calling for is a more inclusive situation, a more broadly assimilated art. Because I believe that ultimately the most significant work is that which takes more into consideration, rather than less. We are at a completely fractured, splintered point in our cultural history. Yet I think it’s necessary and possible as it’s never been before to undergo this process of healing and re-connection. We need to look at the whole picture, try to create complex harmonies and disjunctions, and to examine the links between them.
SB: I’m intrigued as to how you arrived at where you are today, from those early works that involved re-enactments of other paintings?
PT: I see that as prefatory to what followed. Those works were a means whereby I could practice a certain aesthetic, to reach another end. I was concerned with Abstract Expressionism’s obsession with the sublime, and the premise that a painting could demonstrate a transcendent reality of its own. I have this practical side to my nature, which told me I should take a gradualist approach in coming to an understanding of these ideas. The work of Barnett Newman is certainly exemplary in this respect, so I decided that I would re-enact certain of his paintings. Not as parody, but as a tribal ceremonial act. The irony of the gesture did not escape me, but I thought of it rather in terms of liturgical reenactment, a sacred dramaturgy. What, as an artist, was I supposed to do with Newman’sVir Heroicus Sublimis ? I responded to it by making it again. I should say, however, that in reconstructing such a work, some interesting transformations occurred.
SB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but in your writings, and in the interviews that I’ve read, maybe reject is too strong, but there seems something in you that isn’t primarily interested in the attitude that artists must contend with other artists in order to grow. I find that interesting as I mused on it last night, because you had just told me that as a youth you wanted to be a boxer. And I thought, yes, of course, you would want to work through certain things very physically as a child, and naturally you would come to a strategic understanding of artist’s attitudes when it comes to contending with one another. To begin with, they fight amongst themselves and weaken each other, and then they get bumped off by the rest of society that doesn’t give a damn for them in the first place. But worse than that, they tend to remake negatives and positives of each other’s work, which gets you into a historical time warp.
PT: That’s the pernicious aspect to alot of twentieth century artistic thinking—the defensive, propriety attitude, the territoriality. Of course, it’s easier to be critical of some of these positions from our vantage point, after the battles have already been fought. But I suppose part of the reason I’ve done some of the work I’ve described, the re-enactments, is to call into question this sense of territory, and turn it into something that can be explicitly built upon, rather than it being untouchable artistic property.
SB: In contention one says, “I’m going to do the opposite.” But the opposite is always dependent on what you’re doing the opposite of. Suddenly you’re in a trap. The quickest way to get into an historical trap is to be contentious with other artists. Yet how can one help it—if you don’t make an expression of your annoyance, you run the risk of not defending that which has been given to you to do. But you’re not in a war with other artists, you’re only reacting against them. You’re being honest, saying you don’t care for it, making your statement.
PT: I think there is a physical as well as a psychological dimension to one’s decision to do certain things. For example, my decision to make paintings that are related to Ellsworth Kelly’s work came out of the self-knowledge that I was in fact a very similar kind of painter, in terms of my ability, in terms of the physical act of wanting to make those curved lines, wanting to paint them in a certain way, wanting to subdivide canvases or use color in a certain way. Not only was I deeply interested in the nature and texture of his paintings, I was interested in being that painter. I felt my abilities corresponded very closely to what he had done. After having realized this, the next question is, how, conceptually, to make a connection with it? If one deliberately chooses to do a type of work that numerous other artists are doing—in this case Ellsworth Kelly being one the best and most prominent artists working in a geometricized, hard-edged way—how does one proceed? Rather than making a painting slightly different from his, I decided to try to get as close as possible to his works, to get right inside them if I could. I then took that result and constructed a dialectic within it. I played with the space, changing it by suggesting the illusion of having a rope, or a section of wrought iron pass through it.
SB: Oh yes, the rope, what’s that one called? South Ferry?
PT: South Ferry, yes. It’s modeled after an actual marine rope. The title of his work was South Ferry. I felt a romantic connection to that title, it evoked life on Coenties Slip after the war, the New York waterfront, period film noir — all of this before my time. I wanted somehow to participate in that spirit by reliving this work. So I made the painting and extrapolated from that. But there’s more to the story. I took a day trip to Bayonne, New Jersey, one afternoon when I lived in Jersey City in the mid ‘eighties. As I was cycling around the dock areas, I came to a little place under a bridge where there were these kids swinging from a giant rope, a marine rope. It was wonderful, it must have been a hundred feet long. They were swinging from one area to the next, and I was in the middle of this situation, observing. I was working on this painting at that time, and it occurred to me that this rope should be in it. It had to do with desire and memory, it alluded to a highly charged erotic experience, certainly. All the works from this period seem to be generated in this or a similar kind of way.
SB: We did touch on the necessity to go back to the grounds of one’s own most sexual privacies, as a springboard into wherever you’re going, artistically. Basically your work is meat, meat patterns, and here you are trying to be Ellsworth Kelly. You’ve gone to an opposite extreme, and you have that rope in there, which has its erotic connotations for you, at source. But desperately you are trying to work through ritualistically all of the geometric, which essentially is not going to be a part of your making. It isn’t, is it?
PT: Well, it was a way of getting things going, of constructing a foundation. In order to arrive somewhere else, it is necessary to pass through another domain; a new phase of possibility is entered through an existing place.
Mixed media on linen. 114 x 102 inches (289.5 x 259 cm)
SB: It’s also a way of getting to the front brain, because that’s where those geometries come from. They don’t exist in nature, either in your meat physiology or anywhere on earth, except for chance. There are no straight lines, there are no real triangles. There are shards of crystals that look like they’re geometric, until you go at them with the microscope and then they all have wobbly surfaces. The geometric is a late human idea, and it exists more as an idea. I’m not speaking against it, you understand: it’s an effluvia…
PT: I see it this way: take this lemon peel here on this table, and the shadow it makes on the tablecloth. Focus in on this shape, distill the line, take this part of nature and accept it as a building block, something you can utilize to go somewhere else. One then takes that “abstraction” and puts it on a surface, and that provokes a certain set of associations. One examines what those associations are. On the basis of those associations you construct other material that you want to incorporate into this original idea. Now you have this new set of material, of which some can be applied and some cannot. There’s a radical empiricism at work there somehow. It’s also about an abstract idea that becomes a story emerging out of nothing—out of pure observation. Just a perception of a very limited part of physical space that can be examined. This is a microcosmic scale. I’ve always been interested in the molecular separation between an object and the space behind it. I’m very interested in how we perceive that physical reality. I’d like to be able to apply those observations to a very different kind of pictorial situation than what we’ve known before.
SB: But the more geometrically you represent this experience, the more you have to limit seeing in the first place. One always has to limit seeing: one can’t have everything all at once. I’m with you in that in the long run I want everything, but we can’t have everything all at once. The more the geometries interfere, they become like language. They limit the possibility to see that lemon peel to an extraordinary extent in the first place, however you’re going to represent it. There’s the dilemma. To me it’s as simple as this: we were all taught in school that we could do this and achieve depth:
However, the grounds on which we receive and perceive this kind of phenomenon are more like this:
It’s meaty. And that does not make any easy representation of depth. Thus the intrinsic lie of Renaissance perspective, that we’ve all delighted in for so many centuries, evades us when we put it into loose cellular mucous jellied lines. This second diagram has a little depth, but it’s wonky. The first drawing is nice and neat, but it’s a dream, a human dream. We insist on it, and force it onto things in nature, but it does not exist in nature. What other of the geometers, or straight-line dreamers, have been significant to you? Would Mondrian have meant a lot to you at some point?
PT: I’ve always loved the edges of Mondrian’s paintings, where the painted line stops before the edges, a little bit in from the line of the stretcher bar. Speaking of straight-line dreamers, here was a man who could design cities beautifully, down to the square inch, if he had to. The right balance for anything we may ever have to organize in our lives, is there in his work. The choreography of space in those paintings feels so wise, so humane. I find the work very humanitarian, actually, ready to be of assistance at any given moment.
SB: What about Albers?
PT: To some degree. Vasarely’s son, Jean Pierre Yvaral, did some very interesting work in Paris in the nineteen fifties. I’ve had a close relationship with the work of Bridget Riley, a while back.
SB: I know Bridget Riley mostly from the op art days; I haven’t seen anything recently.
PT: I made surgical reconstructions of some of her paintings, but on a much larger scale. I have one from 1984 at the studio,Undercurrent, you may have seen it. It incorporates lino-printing and collage: paper on paper. It has this very topological, strangely distended surface.
SB: The Great Western Sky has some of that feeling…
PT: That’s a later manifestation of some of those same linear ideas. But it’s important to point out that these groupings of lines have been around for a long time. When you see these wavy optical patterns on the robes of figures in Assyrian bas-relief sculpture from 2300 B.C., you realize that vibrating, repetitive lines didn’t fall from heaven into the studio of Bridget Riley in 1961. The idea was to focus on that phenomenon and turn it into a sensorium—to locate the whole sensory apparatus of the body within the gray matter of the brain.
SB: Fly over any country and you know when you’re flying over human habitation or not, because it’s all checkered and circled and triangled. The landscape is geometricized. What’s lacking is to bring in the back brain. And in order to do that, you’ve got to have symmetry without having it. You’ve got to show that it doesn’t really exist, even though it looks like it does. You now seem to be expressing the same need along the lines of the animal kingdom, and some of your animals tend to the asymmetrically symmetrical…
|Large Triangular Fish, Double
(Dicromita Agassizii), II, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper,
26 x 33 inches (66 x 84 cm)
|Calligraphic Tail Fish (Porogadus Miles), I, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper,
26 x 20 inches (66 x 51 cm)
PT: For a long time in my work I’d been using various acculturated symbols or marks. Crystalline references to art history and architecture—the humanly constructed—that is what I’ve concerned myself with, by in large. In this newer work, the nature composites, I’m using depictions in place of acculturated symbols. The context of my work is still very much rooted in the language of abstraction, but this new vocabulary changes my approach somewhat. I experience this nature imagery as opening up the work, letting other information in. I’m interested to see how it might fit into a cultural geology, how it tests the abstract tradition. Let’s remember that abstract merely means “drawn from.” It also applies to something that is taken from somewhere else.
SB: You’re right to remind me, I shouldn’t just say geometric, one gets into habits. D’Arcy W. Thompson’s Growth and Form was a book that was very important to the Abstract Expressionists, and a guiding light for so many artists I’ve known. And it’s been a major book for me, one I’ve read over and over again, a work that demonstrates geometric physiology, or the mathematics of growth. Still, the difference is not dissimilar to the dream of the cube, or any other perfected straight-line painting. Something like it exists, but that’s not it. It’s not unlike saying, “It seems to us that people repeat in their language, but no one should write as if that were true.” In that case, you’re deflecting the whole evolution of human thought if you make it seem that it’s true. Almost all of Gertrude Stein’s imitators, including Robert Duncan, who consciously imitated her, almost all of them tend to make it up as if it’s repeated, and it isn’t. But if you make the reader think so, you’re involved in a lie in the first place. Lies can go on forever, but the truth is very finite.
PT: What about the discussion of Abstract Expressionism as being just another form of American cultural imperialism? That these big abstract paintings were a way of asserting American cultural predominance, of gaining some ground during the cold war.
SB: Blind nuts…
PT: I never thought that argument had much merit myself.
SB: For certain kinds of Abstract Expressionist paintings it needed to be that wide to permit the viewer to encounter it with his or her peripheral vision. That’s all, as far as I’m concerned: peripheral vision.
PT: To enter into it.
SB: Well, I don’t know, I wouldn’t say “enter,” because I always feel there’s a barrier there. Most of them signed their paintings on the front, which is a number one barrier that says, “Keep Out.” Artists have all these various ways of saying, “This is a picture, it’s not a window.” Very often if there’s a path, Cézanne will put a tree fallen down across it, things like that. Whereas for instance Andrew Wyeth, in Christina’s World, the signature is painted on the back. Not always, but it’s a real distinction in most cases.
PT: I haven’t signed my paintings on the front in a long time. I sign them on the back.
SB: You do? Why?
PT: I sign it because it’s finished, it’s a kind of declaration of the work having been completed, before leaving the studio. I sign it just to indicate that I’m the author of this work.
SB: Same here, but it’s peculiar for me to do so—I who was so clear about trying to escape my name, or any name for that matter. The only reason for having that name there is to say ‘by way of me,’ or ‘here’s what this creature did.’ I’m simply trying to keep that integrity clear, so it is known what I’m responsible for. And that I should protect, as long as I’m alive, what it was that I did and where I ended—not thinking that’s the best, but that’s just what I did.
Strata Colensoi (1997–98)
Oil pigment on canvas. 55 x 63-1/4 inches (140 x 160.5 cm)
PT: I don’t sign my paintings on the front because I think it somehow interferes with the viewer’s experience of the picture. I want people to sense that I’m there with them, but that authorship is somehow not the most important thing. I always like to stand outside of my work somehow.
SB: Well it perhaps doesn’t matter in your case anyway, in that you’re not painting anything that one might feel they ought to walk into. I mean, no one’s going to walk into your snake pit, you know, your paintings are so flat, so true to the sense of the flat surface, the Abstract Expressionists also had this aesthetic. There’s no invitation to enter into a painting of yours, so it doesn’t have the same problem that a landscape would…
PT: I don’t know about that. The illusion of depth is just a nice consequence of the way certain things fall into place within the painting. It’s not a deliberate effort to construct any semblance of perspectival space. There are other things that are more primary to me than the deliberate setting up of illusionist space. The space within a painting has to function in an activated way, and there may be some intimation of depth, but it’s coincidental. I think this goes back to what you were saying earlier about creating a fictive place, an imaginary space that viewers may consciously inhabit. Which is why it frightens me when you say people don’t want to enter my work, because I do think of my paintings as places.
SB: Don’t you mean something like “be haunted by” rather than that you would want one to have the sense that they would walk into it?
PT: I would say that to look at a painting means that one is taken up with another reality, a pictorial fictive reality, and as such that picture represents an imaginary location. So that if one is fed up with the mundane and pedestrian experiences of life, and instead stands in front of a painting, that is a place, an imaginary construction to inhabit with one’s sensory being. To be lost inside of a painting is the crucial experience here, as an alternative to other places in the world.
SB: How I interpret that is that you just want to give me an aesthetic experience—I should be so engrossed with your painting that I would walk away from it, as Clive Bell once put it, and not be able to tell people what it was I was looking at. They would say, “Was it was it flowers, was it a snake painting, was it landscape?” And I would say, “I don’t know.” I’d be so fully imbued with it that the brain wouldn’t actually be capable of or interested in subject matter.
PT: I want the viewer to come away with a very detailed memory of having been there, having seen this thing, having experienced what I experienced, in the making of it. With all of that archaic material inside there too.
SB: For me your work has a quality of place, and the brain tries to penetrate that, and do something further with it. It seems to me your work is always creating a place in the mind.
|Claw Column, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper,
22 x 15 inches (56 x 38 cm)
|Falcon Claws, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper,
26-1/4 x 35-3/4 inches (67 x 91 cm)
PT: It’s important to me that a painting possess a strong iconic quality, a frontal gestalt. This makes the character of the work immediately present, enterable in a metaphysical sense. It is this very direct presentation of a theme, through the flatness of the drawing, which seems to heighten the metaphysical dimension of an icon painting. But the best religious icons are also the sexiest. It has to do with the piecing together of the composition, the merging of figures, the strange proximity of elements. So it’s this combination of the metaphysical and the erotic that constitutes my experience of an icon.
SB: I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but maybe at this point in your evolution you’re painting the space as thought would have it, rather than space in the exterior world. How one might think a region, rather than a reflection upon an exterior one.
PT: That’s a very good point. Painted space is mental space
SB: And that again puts you in alignment with what I think is the important and necessary continuum of the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic: they were the first to paint closed eye vision. They painted it without knowing it, without being conscious of it. I don’t have a single word from any of that whole history that they even consciously knew they were involved in hypnogogic vision, but they so obviously were. You can find traces of it earlier, even, in Kandinsky, Klee—even back to Gustave Moreau. Of course in Turner you can find the “Ur” of this whole sense of vision, the paideuma, the gristly roots (as poet Ezra Pound put it) of this need that flowers into the picturing of the unnamable.
Pteris Viscosa (1996)
Oil pigment on canvas. 66-1/4 x 55-1/2 inches (168 x 141 cm)
PT: Can you define what an image is?
SB: Image is difficult. Picture I’ve defined. An image, I don’t know, I’ve never tried to push that distinction.
PT: An image is more transient.
SB: It doesn’t seem to me the naming would have to be that crucial.
PT: It’s ineffable, what constitutes the experience. Does mirage better define this notion?
SB: It could be a part of a picture that is unnamable. I hear “mage” reverberating in it.
PT: Magician, magus.
SB: Yes. When you say image I then more want to talk about Impressionism, rather than hard-edged depiction. I like the word visual, because it escapes all these things. Moving visual thinking, then, is the center of my concerns.
PT: You also use the word envisionment.
SB: I suppose that means after the continuities of time, and out of all of that vision, what reverberates as meaning—the composition of the whole of it, what’s meant . Again, it’s tough because language doesn’t quite describe it, otherwise I’d probably be a poet and not a filmmaker.
PT: For me, the deepest part of the process of making a painting is when I get into an almost incantatory state. When I’m working in this way, I can sometimes recognize a previous archaic existence that I seem to have been a part of. I’m revisiting an archaic moment. Now I know this sounds completely outlandish and presumptuous…
SB: No, not to me, not to anyone who studies DNA…
PT: I tell you, sometimes when I’m working on a painting, I’ll put an element into place, and I’ll see that in relation to something else; and I will have an experience of passing through the familiar terrain of a forest encampment, or sitting by a fire, part of some remote tribal archaic life that I have been a part of, I feel that very strongly. It’s a recognition of an earlier existence, in the act of having experienced just a particle of that existence in a work. That’s what really exhilarates me.
|Seaweed Painting No. 1, (2000).
Mixed media on canvas,
64-1/4 x 57-1/4 inches (163 x 145.5 cm)
|Seaweed Painting No. 2, (2000).
Mixed media on canvas,
64-3/4 x 56-1/2 inches (164.5 x 143.5 cm)
SB: You can have that as reincarnation, as some people do, or you can have that as DNA encoding. I can tell you just one story that’s put me at peace a lot in this matter. They had little cut-out silhouettes of hawks and sparrows, and then they had little chicks who never did see their mothers and never were trained, and these chicks with no training were wandering around, and they pass the shadow of the hawk over them, and they all go crazy and start running in all directions. Then they pass the shadow of the sparrow over them, and they go about whatever they were doing, pecking and scratching without worry. And they didn’t get this info from mommy, they got it genetically. That’s enough proof for me, and there are a lot of other examples. Charles Olson spent the last years of his life trying to understand the outside limits of being human. What we’re really sharing at the outside of being human, in the womb as well as now, is a kind of a grid, if you could call it that, and here’s where language gets awkward. There is a kind of grid which is lit up, even in the womb. We know fetuses dream. What do they dream of? Something’s lit up in there, this dreaming grid which is being shaped, upon which all the imprimatur of their later life will rest—all the ways in which they can imagine or be. And I think that has to be informed by genetics, by DNA. That has to be where we are the most alike. It’s unimaginable that it could be anything else. I think that’s what I in my way, and you in yours, are trying to reach, and give representation to.
PT: Perhaps that’s why I need to go back to Ireland and investigate my Celtic roots. I think I have some shamanistic past, but I’m not sure I’m ready to brag about it.
SB: There’s a playful side to all of whatever the making is, but basically, it’s dangerous, it’s not socially acceptable, and there’s no choice. It’s imprisonment. There is this real fear and sometimes hatred of the artist and of visionary experience.
PT: It’s clear to me that the art we appreciate, the art that we find most overwhelming and compelling, that we pay attention to, is the most dangerous stuff, in terms of the risks it takes. It’s a raw challenge to how things have been done previously, and this puts us in a state of temporary disequilibrium. We know that this information must be dealt with, which is exactly what we demand, it’s what we expect.
SB: The darkest continent of the world is the human mind. For me none of this is a question of decoration. It is seriously a question of art. That’s a discipline you share with people that goes all the way back to the ancient caves. It’s the earliest record of being human, and that gives you a stable grounding in some sense: to be an artist even though everyone uses the term for everything other than what it should be used for. And it’s such an annoying shit factor in your social life—one is so often embarrassed to open one’s mouth to say it. But the truth is, if you hold to that you have a touch with all humanity, and this is some protection against these dangers. It makes you very small in relationship to the whole endeavor, because it also includes those known and unknown artists who tried and failed—those who never made anything of any significance—by the millions.
Adiantum Asplenium (1997)
Oil pigment on canvas. 55 x 66 inches (140 x 167.5 cm)
PT: Or some of those great manuscript painters of the Middle Ages—we’ll never know who they are, those contented or malcontented monastics.
SB: Or all those people who did beautiful, great things, that were just lost or thrown out with the trash. It puts one in this great arena which I literally need when I’m uncovering these layers of the mind. I need it going on all around me and that’s why I work at Potter’s café in downtown Boulder, in this atmosphere of businessmen talking, of fans watching the football game, of tourists.
PT: Why do you do this, instead of working at home?
SB: To keep from going crazy. I do not paint or etch on film in a solitary room, at home or in my office. I can edit there but I can’t dig out the material. I need to be sunk in with my fellow human beings, so I’m not alone with it.
PT: Do you think artistic statement excludes equivocation and speculation, and a negative way of describing things? Describing something by naming all the things that it is not. Do you think that’s a valid approach?
SB: That’s certainly an exhaustive way to go about it. I don’t know. It’s valid if the heart of the person doing it is good, is dedicated to goodness. It’s intriguing. Rilke at some point wanted to get rid of things in the world altogether, and the way to do it was to name them—that was an actual positive ideal. Then you would be left with the truth. The truth is always what you fully believe down to the bone at the given moment, and it can’t ever be anything else than that. When you deal with fact, you’re into the sliding world of science, which changes its facts faster than people change their laundry. Nowadays scientists have far more presumption. Now they think they know. That means they know less than when they didn’t think they knew. As a child, do you remember having hypnogogic visual experiences?
PT: Yes, I really loved the optic feedback, when I rubbed my eyes. Looking at the sun and seeing the veins in your eyelids. Looking at colors with your eyes closed. This inner kaleidoscope.
|Vipera Leberis, I (1997).
Oil pigment on canvas,
27 x 18-1/4 inches (69 x 46 cm)
|King Snake, Ringed Phase;
Double Impression (1997).
Oil pigment on canvas,
29-1/4 x 21-1/4 inches (74 x 54 cm)
SB: We very much share that. In periods when I’m mad enough to push toward myself as a realist filmmaker, I’m trying to paint as near an equivalence of hypnogogic vision as I possibly can. I fail miserably, but usually turn out something else that’s so wonderful to me that I can fortunately just go on and evolve various ways of creating a visual musical equivalence. There too I feel particularly related to you, because I feel in the length or varieties on a theme in your work, you’re really extending over time. You could almost be a filmmaker like Viking Eggling or Hans Richter, both of whom started out making scrolls. They finally stumbled into film because they couldn’t accommodate the scroll medium to the length that their work was demanding. Your painting from the Vienna Secession catalogue was like that.
PT: You mean Megapolis. That was about thirty-five feet long by twelve feet tall. I like working on a large scale. I can fit so much more inside.
SB: There is a sense in much of your work of real color and real form similar to what I’ve invested in making some of my works, like Mothlight, or Garden of Earthly Delights, using a real, collaged, flattened object. Only you do it with paint.
PT: I like how you described Mothlight as having to do with the attractiveness of death: the fact that the moths were attracted to this warmth and light, and that killed them. It’s a way of showing that feeling or reality on film in a very palpable way.
|Brakhage, Mothlight, (1963).
|Brakhage, Mothlight, (1963).
SB: That was certainly the personal reason for making it. I felt I was being killed by the process of creating by being drawn to the light. And the moths certainly were, right before my eyes. Then there was this question of what to do with their bodies, which started all that off. It was very important to me that I didn’t kill any of them in the making of that film. There’s a later work that’s more related to painting, actually, pressing Alpine mountain flowers between thirty-five millimeter film, so you have the images in much larger scale:The Garden of Earthly Delights.
PT: I notice you use a phrase which I use quite frequently, which is aesthetic ecology, to describe a state of equilibrium in a work, where all the parts are functioning within the general system. Nothing wasted.
SB: Aesthetic ecology, yes. To me it means more than balance: it means nothing should just have dropped into the work from heaven. You could have something dropped in from heaven, but that would be an anomaly, and you should, then, have prepared for that anomaly. You can’t slide on too much of that — that suddenly things will just occur. A place has to be made, things have to be generated. I’m talking about a continuity art, across time, the way it comes into existence, how it interacts with everything else. And my great teacher in this respect, is Gertrude Stein. Her ultimate poem is Stanzas and Meditations, because there every word has a life of its own, as if it were a character in a Tolstoy novel. Whatever they tangential describe or obliquely indicate, all these words also have a life of their own, in between the lines, which you might call their soul.
Cobra Nocturne (1997)
Mixed media on canvas. 55 x 66 inches (140 x 167.5 cm)
PT: I think the phrase “aesthetic ecology” can also apply to the fact that, in the awareness of making something, you have to energize every frame. Every cell has to have a life energy. There’s a cumulative effect as a result of all of these energy sparks. It’s a funny psychological problem, how to treat one’s chosen material. I love calligraphic gesture and will very often scrape litho ink over glass deliberately to make an impression on paper from that. But there’s a fine line between appreciating a certain gesture or mark, giving it its due weight, and not feeling too precious about it. And I think the material has to be treated in a very ecological way, so that one makes good use of these resources, accepting them for their potential and for their capacity to be integrated within a larger scheme of things. They have a practical use value — as well as having a particular beauty. There is the more inclusive, loving part of the story, and then there must be a ruthlessness, which has to do with knowing what belongs where.
SB: For me the really arduous and disturbing chore of furthering what’s known as Abstract Expressionism, in contemporary terms, in terms of the human mind, lies in uncovering that whole streaming of moving visual thinking that is and always has been free of language. Because of the Abstract Expressionist painters we have all these different areas of the unnamable—areas of now-shared, human non-verbal thinking that we can inhabit, travel to…
PT: To inhabit the pictorial — that’s a very important idea. You have somehow managed to calm the better part of my anguish about not knowing what something is called, while I’m working on it. The pull of language is so great at times, that I might find myself conforming to the imaginary demands of a discourse which says that the identification of something has absolute primacy. Often in art those premature qualifications can be misleading and counter-productive. So from our conversation I feel more relaxed about that idea.
Lizard Page II, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper, 29-1/4 x 21 inches (74 x 53 cm)
SB: Painting is where this new visual consciousness rose, and I think probably every evolution of it will occur in painting first. And I’ll tell you why: people can only deal with so much. It is to me in one sense the same as the Impressionists, who went out into the landscape and in the rain and wind, and they sat there and painted from nature, and it made an enormous difference in human vision, right? Similarly, Jackson Pollock goes into his head, and finds some area that’s never been expressed, and at great agony gets it out of himself. Many went nuts under this, literally went crazy and came to bad ends, not just the alcoholism and suicides, but literal insanity, trying to get this vision out of their heads. The beautiful, shamanistic clarities of these drunks, which is really mostly what they were: utterly sincere, desperate, crazy American drunks. What a thing for this to come out of. And then there are certain people who manage to go on being creative and achieve a certain kind of happiness, and it absolutely puzzles the hell out of me how they do that.
PT: I know what you mean. Most people are condemned to a life of at least partial torment. Perhaps the point is to bear it with dignity.
SB: And I yearn for it, of course, I want to be, well, happy is too superficial a word. But you know what I mean. I want to be joyful and present a splendor, a happy splendor to people, and to myself. One thing that you and I share that makes us forever not happy—you wanted to be a filmmaker and I wanted to be a poet, so we are in the first place failed—although we’ve had the sense to accept what was given to us to do.
PT: Well, that’s not entirely true, perhaps. I might call myself a would-be filmmaker. But the point is I really enjoy making paintings. And some artists have made astonishing films. Richard Serra, for example. I don’t know, I still have it in my mind that I might be able to make films. But I do very much like to make paintings.
SB: I’m envious of these people who can go out and be a Sunday painter. I’m also frustrated in that sense. I would like to go up in the mountains here. Then again, I don’t care too much for the mountains. But I would love to sit in a garden somewhere and paint. To make a painting of the garden, and not have all this crisis of human evolution on me. I come to town now and have my Irish coffee five times a week, something like that. I don’t really drink otherwise. It’s a nice balance between the coffee and the liquor. That’s about my only vice. Every now and again I go crazy and say some wild things that startle the natives. But I try not to do that too often. Usually it’s on a humanistic level. I usually don’t get all that upset about art anymore. Curiously, only to the extent that I speak positively seems to me to be useful anymore. Because there I’m operating from what’s in my bones, what are my grounds. I’ve always known I’m more nuts than people who had reputations as such, like Harry Smith.
PT: It’s funny you should say that, I’ve had similar feelings myself. I’ve always found that I could be just as crazy as the really crazy ones if it was a question of detente.
SB: Harry’s trick to stay out of the asylum was to dance it openly and be funny. I couldn’t do that. If I once slipped into that mode that was so common to Harry, or on other occasions to Kenneth Anger, I would go over the edge and right into the loony bin. I couldn’t handle it in that way. Therefore I know I’m more crazy. I can’t afford to fool around with it and be funny about it. So I’m known as one of those bores that’s known as very serious. Very serious professor. It’s such a gas that I can call myself a doctor. [chuckles].
Oil pigment on paper, 30 x 44 inches (76 x 112 cm)
PT: In thinking about the future of this endeavor, this ultimately pleasurable, ultimately painful process of making art, I think what you said is quite right, that the government and the people who want to control things in this country seem intent on taking ground away from artists who are trying to open up worlds and free people’s minds, to give them something to think about, to provoke them, to make them more human. In New York City they’re not teaching art in the schools anymore. Children are not going to visit museums, they’re not going to know how to look at art anymore. There’s a deliberate intention to make the society into a more computer-oriented, technocracized population. I think it’s terrible that children are learning to use computers at too early an age, I think this is very pernicious…
SB: Yes, I’m very nervous about it because my son Anton is up against it right now. Fortunately it’s rather limited, but I don’t even like for him to learn it at all, yet. Maybe ever. I don’t have much belief in computers, which can either be regarded as my being an old fogey, or that I know something most other people don’t right now know or care to know.
PT: It keeps people more separate, and reduces human contact.
SB: Yes, and it is a lie in the sense that it is a net: the internet floats itself on bringing people together, when in fact it’s effect is in many ways quite the opposite. But all of these things again are not something I feel I can have too much effect on, or whatever I say means much of anything. It’s all just blowing in the wind. It doesn’t even constitute an event for me. Finally you can say, what’s the difference. People have to pay for their discoveries, we’re not here on earth to have these visions grow on trees. They must be earned. The gesture of goodwill is that we need each other, and as best we can, we pass on to each other what we’ve earned, and that’s part of the generosity of the work. You’re absolutely unique and individual, but you’re working within a sacred calling that goes back to the dawn of time, so who can stake a claim and say “this is mine?”
Bee Sheet, (1997).
Oil pigment on paper, 29 x 21 inches (74 x 53 cm)
STAN BRAKHAGE was born in Winfield, Kansas in 1933. He attended Dartmouth College for one semester before abandoning formal studies to pursue his education amongst poet-teachers Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, and Charles Olson. Throughout the 1950s, in New York and San Francisco, Brakhage was among several filmmakers who sought to create a personal cinema based on poetry, myth, and the visionary experience. Anticipation of Night (1957) was a turning point for both Brakhage and independent film, positing vision itself as the central subject of his work. The four-and-a-half hour The Art of Vision (1961-65) was described by its maker as a “visual symphony,” and involved shifting focus, multiple superimposition, and scratching and hand painting directly onto film. His filmography consists of hundreds of films, and his many books include Metaphors on Vision (1963), Cine-dance (1967), The Brakhage Lectures (1972 ), The Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964-80 (1982), I….Sleeping (1988), and Film at Wit’s End (1991). He served as Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder until his death in 2003.