I have known Gregory Botts for about twenty years. Early on, I remember being captivated by the guerilla action he and his wife, fellow painter Jenny Hankwitz, took in the early 1990s: planting sunflowers in the meridian of Houston Street in SoHo. Botts divides his time between New York City and Abiquiu, New Mexico. On his cross-country road trips, he paints landscapes outdoors, and in the studio he incorporates the landscape vocabulary and motifs into larger-scaled, more abstract work. Two of the important writers on Botts’s work are literary critic Harold Bloom and poet David Shapiro. An interest in poetry runs through Botts’s practice, as evidenced in the titles of his paintings and in the volume of his own poetry, which he published as a companion to his visual work, Clouds, Leaves, Waves (1996).
Around 2001 my husband and I visited Botts in New Mexico, where he lives in the middle of an empty desert field, and he showed us his paintings, all lined up on the studio floor. He took us on a hike through Ghost Ranch, where I felt sun-struck and dazed by the harsh light and altitude. Botts, however, was very much in his element, leading us around in a straw hat, and talking animatedly about Georgia O’Keeffe.
Botts has an exuberant but economic way with paint, marking the curve of a flower stem, the form of a mesa, and a cloud sitting in the sky with accuracy and poetic bravado. The landscapes are punctuated by geometric interruptions: squares of saturated color and black, jagged outlines that symbolize a break between the natural forms in the paintings and a studio or painting wall. They are the checks and balances in the middle of a relentless pursuit of adventure and the sublime, where motifs and geometry are constantly recycled and re-imagined.
Gregory Botts was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1952. He studied at the School of Visual Arts and the Skowhegan School under the mentorship of Peter Heinemann, Fairfield Porter, and Paul Georges. He has taught at the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara; the New York Studio School; the National Academy School; and the Anderson Ranch Arts Center and Telluride Painting Academy in Colorado.
In the 1980s and 1990s his work was shown at Anne Plumb Gallery and Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York. In Santa Fe, it has been exhibited with Gerald Peters Gallery and David Richard Gallery. He is currently the subject of a solo exhibition at Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee. A group of fourteen paintings entitled “Stations Project” is installed at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan, through April 2015.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in a rural area in Pennsylvania. Has that landscape played a role in your work? How did you become interested in art-making?
Gregory Botts: I grew up in a small town near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Most people in the community didn’t know what art was, although we had an amazing art teacher in school. My older brother went to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh to study graphic design, so I had that example as well.
When I was older, I found out that my father’s father was a musician. He had a big band in the 1920s, but then the Depression hit and he became a church organist and piano teacher for the rest of his life.
I was brought up in a very religious household. My mother’s father was a minister. I thought that had something to do with why my paternal grandfather was a church organist. But I realized that it was the opposite – he hung out at a place called the White Swan, and got fired by the church for working at the Liquor Control Board.
Somebody told me, as a kid, that I was going to be very unhappy if I asked so many questions. That really set me against religious affiliation. My escape was in nature — running around the woods and in the Susquehanna River all day.
JS: You studied at the School of Visual Arts. Can you tell me about those years and your teachers?
GB: Going to the School of Visual Arts had a lot to do with escaping my religious household. Half of my classes were in graphic design. But I also had Peter Heinemann for a teacher, and he was a bit like a Protestant-type thumper; he had really definite ideas. So I probably related to that. It was the 1970s, so they included experimental ideas about community and art-making. We had life drawing workshops that I monitored for five years. That was my whole education – drawing twice a week for five years. Peter’s main idea was that you become able to draw so that it just becomes a language.
I started going to meetings of the Figurative Artists Alliance. Peter told me, “Gregory, you don’t have to follow this model of being an illustrator, and in your free time, trying to be a fine artist. Come with me downtown and you can be part of a community of artists.” My parents weren’t really able to keep up with the money, so I let them off the hook by quitting school.
My new school became Max’s Kansas City. Joseph Kosuth taught at SVA, and I would see him there. I met person after person. There was a world growing really fast in New York City out of the downtown nightclubs and bars – Magoo’s, Puffy’s, and One University. We would go to five bars a night, just to see who was there. The drinking fueled things in a good way, in terms of animated conversation about people’s direction as artists.
I met Paul Georges at the drawing workshops. Paul brought me to Skowhegan for a summer, and then I spent summers with the Georges family in Long Island for the next five years. Graphic design was not even an idea anymore. I made landscape paintings; I painted in Paul’s backyard with Fairfield Porter. We went to parties at Jane Freilicher’s. I was around conversations of John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch and Larry Rivers. James Schuyler lived with the Porters. I was lucky to have seen that entire community of poets and painters. Years later I became very interested in poetry, and began writing it.
I had a girlfriend who was Helen Frankenthaler’s assistant, and her best friend was Jules Olitski’s assistant. Suddenly, when I was out in Long Island, rather than being with the figurative painters, I was hanging out with Dan Christensen and Larry Poons.
I remember being at a birthday party for Larry Rivers. Julian Schnabel walked up to me and said that he heard that I was a figurative artist. He caught me off guard, because I didn’t quite know what he meant. He had already made a splash with new paintings, which were being called figurative, but were certainly different than my idea of figurative. Almost instantaneously, there was a realization that Schnabel and Salle’s work was coming out of Color Field painting – they used stained canvases, but they placed images on top. It was like a light bulb in everyone’s heads – an exciting shift.
I saw the Anselm Kiefer show at Mary Boone Gallery with Roy Fowler and René Ricard, and we were astounded by the paintings. Straw was falling off the paintings while we talked, and that was even more fun. The thing we were amazed by was that it was landscape painting with a new kind of space. It could connect to Jackson Pollock. It is hard to understand now, but at that time, everything had to relate back to Jackson Pollock. If it didn’t, you just weren’t in the world.
So much happened and changed in the New York art world between 1979 and 1982, but I actually left New York in those years. Hank Pitcher offered me a job at the University of California, so I exchanged places with him. For the next five years I was there on and off. I met my wife Jenny Hankwitz in those years, and John McCracken.
In California, I set up ten-by-twelve-foot paintings on the beach, like tents, lashed down. It was almost a performance, really. I brought a group of the large paintings back to New York. In 1985, Annie Plumb started her gallery, and I had two back-to-back shows there of the big paintings. They had tar and stuff on them from the beach in Santa Barbara. I liked that, because it related to Kiefer.
I had made landscape paintings for ten years, but I started thinking about abstraction. To put abstraction and representation together was part of the 1980s aesthetic. I began making black and white paintings that I dragged a blade through. Now Richter seems to own that technique. But almost everyone I knew back then seemed to do that. It was a way to take your hand out, and related more to that automatic gesture of Pollock’s.
I came up at a time when Clement Greenberg was talking against making any figurative work because it would be too subjective. Even when you make abstract paintings, you constantly come upon figures. Do you actively take them out? When I found an accidental figure in a bush or something, I would increase it. A tree becomes a figure. Even in 1984 it was problematic – a critic singled out a nude in my show at Annie Plumb. It signaled that I had too much tradition, I suppose. But I wasn’t against that.
The poet and art critic David Shapiro wrote about the idea of the canvas itself being a figure. The stretcher bars are the skin and bones, and the abstract painting becomes an inner psychology or landscape. I dragged the blade across the stretcher bars to make marks on the canvas. I would say that every one of those 10-foot paintings was a camouflaged, abstract figure.
I was also interested in the idea, which I found in John Milton, of the “deeper deep.” I had systems that I put my process through. For instance, in one painting, I put a purple stain down. I masked off a square. I made my black and white painting and took the masking tape off. That purple square, which was behind everything, floated forward, but it also became a negative “deeper deep.” Eventually I began calling the deep space “romantic,” and the surface space “classic.”
Going from the deep space to the surface seemed to be the whole idea of painting. The deep space was analogous to Pollock and the surface space was analogous to Kelly, Newman. My idea was to keep the two things, and put them together.
I did a collaboration with John McCracken. I made a painting that was divided in half by a diagonal. One side of the canvas was red, and the other side was yellow. I called that “Achilles Shield.” John said that he should make it out of fiberglass, because we were talking about the hardness of the surface. John used to say that paintings should be worn on the artist’s forearms as an identity.
We talked about this horizontal trudging in the landscape, when all of a sudden, if you stopped, and went “Aha!” that was like a clap of hands. So there is the dragging of the black and white paint across the canvas as well as bringing everything back to the surface – the clap of hands.
JS: You make many landscape paintings outdoors during your road trips across the country. But you also work in the studio on paintings that involve more abstraction and geometry. How do the processes come together, or do you think of them as distinct?
GB: I take regular trips across the country from New York to my studio in New Mexico, and make paintings in the landscape while I’m on the road. For me, going off making landscape paintings is just as conceptual as Michael Heizer going out there digging in the ground with tractors. It is adventure in the literary sense. With the destruction of the earth – how do we think of that? I think about Picasso’s idea that painting is an investigation of reality.
The paintings begin in the landscape with real information. Then, I become interested in the abstraction that I find in them. I make works on paper and paintings in acrylic. I start to see the shapes by reiterating them.
JS: The sunflower is a recurring motif in your work, and it is painted in varying degrees of naturalism and geometry. What draws you to that subject?
GB: In myth, what is so great about the motif of sunflowers is the sun. In comparative mythology, all of the heroes come from the east. The heroes are identified with the sun coming up. Howard Bloom told me the word “mythos” is about describing the change – the earth spinning every day, and how we relate. In a poem, I wrote about turning and returning, cyclical rotations, unending circles, shaping of experience. I already was dealing with that in my paintings.
Back when I painted in Long Island, when it was too windy at the ocean beach, we would go to the bay. There was a field of sunflowers on the way. I would cut a whole pile and stick them in a jug. Paul and I would find broken conch shells and a piece of nylon rope. Paul would string them on the rope. The jug became the earth, and the broken conch shell rope, like the sun going around it.
When I was painting those, I was living during the week by myself on Cranberry Hole Road, and I read the two-volume book of Van Gogh’s letters, paintings, and drawings. Van Gogh was reading Walt Whitman when he painted his sunflowers. He was planning to make a triptych with his painting “La Berçeuse” and the sunflowers. It was about the idea of the oneness of the universe. If you think about the rings in Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” they are also related to Whitman’s words about the sun and “though orb of light.”
JS: Many of your paintings have a vertical jagged line which separates one part of the painting from the other. Does it have a symbolic significance?
GB: The line marks fragments symbolizing a piece of fresco. For example, a fragment, like a sunflower in the sunset, is the piece of fresco. The black and white area of the painting is what is behind. To me it represents all of my black and white paintings – all that romantic space.
It relates to the feeling I had in Italy seeing frescoes — that desire to make a Piero Della Francesca. But what would be the subject? We don’t have something that we collectively believe in. That was always in my mind – where do you go to make the great American painting?
Wallace Stevens’s poem, “The Comedian as the Letter C” is about the impossibility of the hero. T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land,” is about the impossibility of the epic. It is an epic made out of tragedy. That is what I have shadowed in my work.
Ralph Waldo Emerson thought we should have left Christianity in Europe and made our own religion. He said, as Americans, we should make our own bibles. Walk Whitman knew of that idea, and took it as his cue to really make his bible. I thought about this idea, that any artist should be making his or her own bible, not reading and illustrating somebody else’s. I think that is an incredibly wonderful idea, and it solves all my problems from childhood.
All the myth that fuels me has similar ideas. These archetypes are clichés. There is a hero-type figure in my paintings, who I call Crispin, after the character in Wallace Stevens. I have found that if I make a radical enough form to hook up with the cliché, I am successful.
My paintings from the 1980s are still very present in my studio, in my house. In 2005, I brought all my paintings from New York to New Mexico. There was constantly a row of paintings leaning up against the wall that I was trying to get out of the way.
I started to realize, through all of this moving, that I liked the relationship of one painting to another. I thought about the idea that every painting you make is going beyond and relating to what you’ve done before. A painting is supposed to represent truth, but one painting is never really the truth. Somehow, between two images put together, there is some truth. The moment of any idea fades or tumbles into the next, with all those measured stops – the clap of hands, like this seasonal movement and constant spinning of the earth, and like that young boy I was, tromping through the dirt.