I was surprised when Mark Greenwold gave me his address, because it was, like my own apartment, in “upstate Manhattan,” a far remove from the center of the art world. I had been struck by his painting in the midst of the 300-artist Surviving Sandy exhibition — its weirdness and drama, but also the way geometric, abstract passages were fluidly merged with densely packed representation.
Greenwold’s home is utterly normal, comfortable, and neat as a pin, with matching folded towels hanging in the bathroom. The studio is in a large back room, with a drafting table, desk lamps, ballpoint pen sketches, clippings of quotes and notations taped to the walls, and hundreds of the tiniest brushes.
It overlooks a rooftop schoolyard, and the sound of children playing during our afternoon visit added to the feeling of an almost suburban existence. Perhaps Greenwold cultivates the privacy that comes from the quotidian to create paintings of psycho-sexual intensity, which are decidedly anti-heroic.
Greenwold was born in 1942 in Cleveland, Ohio and received a BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art and an MFA from Indiana University. His paintings of the 1970s were attacked for their content and censored for representations of explicit sex. His more recent work includes representations of himself (often naked) and recognizable artist friends like Chuck Close and James Siena in complex interiors. In 1995–96, a retrospective of his work was organized by the Colby College Museum of Art and traveled to the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, SUNY. He is represented by Sperone Westwater Gallery, where he was the subject of a 2013 solo exhibition.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Cleveland; how were you introduced to painting?
Mark Greenwold: I grew up in a house where there was no particular appreciation of art. And, as a Jew, there is a fatwa against telling stories in pictures. My family thought I should be a lawyer because I liked to argue. But I was always pretty sad, anxious, and contentious, without a place for it. I got some paint-by-number sets, but I couldn’t just fill in. I would take the little brushes provided with the sets and make copies of Max Beckmann portraits. There was great physical pleasure in that; it seemed authentic.
So, I had a breakdown in the career plan to become a lawyer, and before high school, I took over my sister’s room and my saintly grandmother’s room, and used the space to make things. I was painting on the walls, like the character in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Thank God my grandmother was there, because she was a great supporter; I feel like she’s been watching over me forever.
In high school, I had a genius teacher, named Thom Lehnert. He made the art room into an enchanted world. He took away all the structural hierarchy of the classroom, brilliantly. There was a special-needs kid in the class who painted watercolors. He would keep dipping his brush in the water, and the water would get darker and darker, dirtier and dirtier. And, in the end, he would pick up the jar, and drink it. Lehnert would just say how great this was!
In the school library, I had found the book The Family of Man, which is perhaps the most famous anthology of photographs, and has since been questioned for what is considered its overt sentimentality. But at the time, I thought nobody knew about it. I was working from those images like it was my dirty little secret.
I could never work in class or in front of anyone. I am still very self-conscious. I would paint in the basement of my home, and bring work in for our weekly critiques. I brought in a piece, and Lehnert said, “Oh, that’s from The Family of Man!” I was shocked; I felt revealed. But, he didn’t say, like some people might have, “You can’t paint from photographs.” He said, “Oh, how great, you found this! You are inspired.” That was amazing.
JS: You mention secrets and being self-conscious; it seems you have turned this into part of the content of your work.
MG: Yes. Shame has always been a huge aspect of my work: secrets and lies, the shamefulness of everything, of being human. Ernest Becker said we are all animals with brains and worms with assholes. We embody all those levels.
People can’t stop talking about Lena Dunham, in her show, “Girls”: how she is not ashamed; she is always naked. And I think, “But why is it courageous? Why should we hate our bodies to the point we do?” It is true in men as well as women.
So, okay, I make myself naked. But is that easy for me? Is it honesty? Is it confessional? Am I an exhibitionist? Am I making a comment? It is a lot of things. There are precedents in photography, like John Coplans. Coplans’s work is amazing, but he was a formalist; he took an old man’s body and made it into abstraction. I am not doing that. I am painting myself.
I even did one of the great no-nos. I painted a partial erection. It was called “A Jewish Couple” (2011), and it was on the announcement for my show at Sperone Westwater. I thought, “Does this make a lot of sense? Is it career suicide the way I presented myself?” But it seemed what I wanted to do.
Does shame ever stop? The paradigm of being an artist is that you can take this stuff and find a way of working with it. It is raw; it is never resolved.
JS: The figures in your paintings are situated in elaborate interiors. You use design magazine photographs as sources; can you tell me about this?
MG: The way I begin is with the visceral excitement I feel about a space. In recent years I’ve read more about Jewish history and Yiddish theater. I love some of the 19th-century Yiddish writing, as well as the writers who come out of that tradition, like Isaac Singer and Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
Shtetl culture was all about people in enclosed spaces. They are living in claustrophobic environments and have very little sense of the outdoors. Nature essentially means trouble, and God is someone you argue with. You don’t, as a Jew, really believe in God. My Orthodox Jewish grandmother didn’t really believe in God. My 96-year-old mother doesn’t really believe in God.
What is real, though, is this fucking family that you’re fighting with all the time – all these people on top of each other constantly laughing and swearing. It is the aliveness of that, but also the humor, the pathos, the death and the sickness, and the amazing whining – all of it.
My work is about the excitement and the intensity of the familial, relationships, and friendships. The enclosure, the scale, the compression, and the complexity of how I make the paintings, which is sort of endless.
JS: Do you always work from photography and found images?
MG: I have always worked from photographs. I could never work from life. If I have a real person, I would just want to talk to them or touch them or get rid of them. Also, I love the distancing relationship to photographs.
There was a brilliant impersonator of Richard Nixon, who I saw on Johnny Carson. One day, as he was performing, he was looking at the palm of his hand. Carson asked what was in his hand. He was sort of embarrassed, but then he said, “I have a picture of Nixon in my hand.” I thought, “Wow. This guy who spent his life impersonating Nixon still needed the fact of Nixon to trigger his imagination.” That was a good analogy for the way I work. I need something specific to begin with. Whatever I give to it comes out of that.
JS: I see in your studio that you have only certain sections of the painting visible, and everything else is masked off. Why do you do this? I also see post-its on another panel where you seem to be sketching and making notes on the composition.
MG: I work in fragments. I move around constantly; I don’t work from top to bottom. I’ll work all around and back over things a million different times. That’s why it takes me so long. In a public conversation, Lisa Yuskavage said that I’m playing exquisite corpse with myself. It is absolutely true. I’m creating this frustrated relationship with the whole.
More and more, I’m getting braver in a kind of Frankensteinian way. I’m cutting people up and putting their heads on other bodies or on animals. It is interesting to me. The idea of the consistency of a figure seems like a trope with a conventional history.
But who was crazier with figures than Ingres? Ingres—the paradigm of the classical—took crazy, Cubist risks. Picasso loved Ingres because he fucked with the figure more than anyone. In the portrait, “Comtesse d’Haussonville” (1845), at The Frick Collection, the arm comes right out of the woman’s chest. It is one of the greatest paintings on earth, and it makes no sense; it makes less sense than a de Kooning. To me, that is courage.
The post-its and the sketches are part of my process. In one drawing, I’m telling myself that it doesn’t matter if the head doesn’t fit on the body. I want that, but it is hard, painful, because it is breaking with the facts and using them as a stepping-stone for transformation into a more urgent, more hysterical realm. If there is a term for my work, it should be hysterical realism.
JS: Can you discuss your painting, “Sewing Room (for Barbara)” (1975–79), which shows a man stabbing a woman? What do you consider the violent subject matter about, and what did the critic Lucy Lippard actually say about the painting?
MG: I was living in Los Angeles during the Charles Manson murders. In LA, I had made the painting, “Bright Promise (for Simon)” (1971–75). The people in that painting were not people I knew. I used pornography and magazines as sources. Then, when I started “Sewing Room,” I began to use myself, and people I knew. I painted it after I moved from LA to Albany.
In Los Angeles, I had staged a photo shoot at the home of Tippi Hedren, the actress who starred in Hitchcock’s films. Tippi’s son was in my class at UCLA. In her backyard, there were literally lions and tigers. She was wild. I took pictures of essentially a murder, a sex crime. I thought a movie star’s house would be perfect. Of course, even her palatial mansion in the Hollywood Hills wasn’t perfect. But the photographs I took were horrifying. I was the murderer in some. The photo shoot involved my graduate assistant, who happened to look like my then-wife. My wife was pregnant at the time.
The woman in the painting ended up looking a lot like my wife, and the painting was dedicated to her. But that was done in a loving way. I believe all my work comes out of love. Anything you spend a million years working on is about love.
Lucy Lippard essentially said, “You can’t make that kind of painting.” She reduced it and me to a poster child for misogyny. I felt totally blindsided. I didn’t make a painting of a man stabbing a woman as an endorsement.
I have always been interested in violence in my work. It was never something I didn’t do. What is theater? Kafka’s, Shakespeare’s, Aeschylus’s and Strindberg’s work is all about tragedy, or the family, or relationships. In the 1960s, when I was developing as an artist, one of the things that interested me most was film. Great European and American filmmakers like Orson Welles and Bergman and Antonioni were making films about human concerns. Why would you leave any of that out? Why would you leave out the power of Greek tragedy?
Very few visual artists get into the complicated nature of men and women, men and women having issues with each other. Generationally, the issues change, but it doesn’t mean, fundamentally, the questions aren’t always legitimate.
I have also realized that one of the legitimate things that fuels my work, and a lot of people’s work, is rage. Using the energizing aspect of rage: the unconsciousness of it, but also the consciousness of it.
Painting need not just be about big yellow expanses of canvas. If Rothko wanted people to cry in front of his paintings, as if they were looking at Auschwitz or Buchenwald, he had to tell them. He is a great painter, but you cannot convey, with pure abstraction, the same kinds of things you can convey with representation. I’m not saying you can’t have sorrow and pity in abstract paintings, but it is a different sorrow and pity, conveyed differently.
“Sewing Room” was also a radical shift because it was small. I had been making large paintings before that. The scale was based on Piero della Francesca’s “Flagellation of Christ,” which is one of my favorite paintings, although I have never seen it in the flesh. It is small and divided into sections. “Sewing Room,” and all of my work since, is in some way, divided: triptych or diptych-like.
JS: Despite the sections, and even some dissonant stylistic juxtapositions, like the abstract “thought bubbles” emanating from figures in recent paintings, I admire the unity in your work. Can you talk about that?
MG: We are all part of our generation, and our generational experience. I am a Greenbergian at heart. I loved Clement Greenberg’s writing, but what he essentially wrote would have excluded me. But, as a teacher and an artist, I still think mostly as a formalist. It wasn’t the content, but rather, the work itself. I still believe in the allover-ness, that all parts of the painting need to have equal attention.
Of course, everything that Greenberg said you shouldn’t do as an artist was everything that interested me. You shouldn’t have humor, you shouldn’t have sex, you shouldn’t have violence, you shouldn’t have narrative, it shouldn’t be penetrable, it should be flat. Every “should” was something that I thought, fuck that! How can you make art that isn’t on some level literary, historical, and emotional?
JS: You work on paintings for years at a time. This idea of “slowness” has been part of the response and discussion around your work. Why do you think that is?
MG: There is contempt in the art world for craft, and how to make things. We talk about “de-skilling,” and “post-studio,” and artists who make nothing, or have assistants making everything for them.
The valorization of quickness, spontaneity, and the so-called “found,” while considering something made over a long time being fussy, overworked, and overly determined, is total bullshit. Writers don’t believe that. Why should visual artists believe that? I’m sure van Eyck didn’t believe that, and Vermeer didn’t believe that. Chardin didn’t believe it, and Ingres didn’t believe it.
Why revere Luc Tuymans for saying that if he takes longer than three hours he gets anxious? Fine. I get anxious too. I take a nap; I come back. Then I spend another three hours. Then I spend a year. Why should I not be respected for that, if I can make something that I think is extraordinary?
Why is the archetype of playing like a child, making a mess, and showing your mess, prioritized over the archetype of an adult, questioning, developing, and using their intellect in the work? I suppose it has a lot to do with pop culture, the way music is discussed, and primitivising impulses. It comes from wanting to be like what we perceive as less evolved cultures.
The way I believe in making these paintings, I feel pretty absolute about. If I make things more quickly, I don’t like them, I don’t believe in them. I start to feel crazy though. Why does it take me so long? Well, some writers take ten years developing their work. I work like a writer – in chapters. I go piece by piece, not necessarily consecutively. But the accretion of days changes me.
There is a level of fever in the work. Does that become lessened because I spend a year on something? I think it becomes intensified. Because, like an actor, you can maintain your relationship with it, and in reworking, find a deeper connection to it.