“I love it here, but this isn’t my true home,” Gregory Amenoff says, looking out the window of his studio in Ulster County, New York. “Too green,” he declares. It is a damp but temperate afternoon as he shows me around his home and the small barn he uses as his office. Art by family members, former students, and self-taught artists line the walls. It is the home of a restless, curious collector of information and inspiration, a champion of a very personal canon. His studio, at the back of the property, is comparatively stripped down: four big paintings in progress, a couple of chairs, a wood stove, and a painting table heaped with crusty, splattered tubes.
Amenoff moves and speaks like a politician: he’s tall, energetic, dramatic, and commanding. His comment about the upstate New York landscape reminds me of New Mexico, where I visited him in the 1990s. There, the drama of the climate was the perfect backdrop for his personality. Though he may have since given them up, Amenoff was a natural in cowboy boots. He has negotiated decades of shifts in art world trends while maintaining an increasingly unique aesthetic position: a heroic poetics of abstraction.
There is often a disorienting tension in his work, where the tough and the lyric, the operatic and the intimate converge. The paintings function, alternately, as small windows into big worlds, or big windows into small worlds. They are muscular, painterly investigations of the micro – a thorn, a leaf, the space between branches, or a bloom. He has mined these forms and motifs with colored pencil on paper, with woodcut, etchings, and monoprints, with distemper, with molded layers of oil paint, and viscous, scumbled surfaces.
Gregory Amenoff was born in 1948 and lives and works in New York City and Ulster County. He is on the faculty of the Visual Arts Division of Columbia University, where he was Chair from 2007-2013. He served as President of the National Academy of Design from 2001-2005. He is also a founding member and serves on the Board of the Cue Art Foundation. He has been the subject of traveling museum exhibitions in 1997-98 and 1998-2000; his works on paper were surveyed in a traveling exhibition in 1993. Nielsen Gallery, Boston, presented numerous exhibitions of his work from the 1970s through the 2000s. He is represented by Alexandre Gallery, New York, where solo exhibitions were presented in 2007, 2010, and 2013.
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Jennifer Samet: Did you have any exposure to art in your childhood?
Gregory Amenoff: I didn’t come from an art family. As a child, I had no real interest in visual art, and was thinking more of politics and law. My family lived outside of Chicago, and my father was in the newspaper business, and became the editor of the local paper and the mayor of our town.
However, I remember this like it was yesterday – being on my porch at age 17, watching the Today show on a black-and-white television set. A woman came on and showed the artwork of people who were institutionalized. The work made sense to me. I began to buy the one bona fide art magazine that came to the newsstand in my town. I looked at all the pictures and copied abstract paintings, like Edward Avedisian and Bridget Riley.
I had a high school friend who fooled around with oil paint. He bought sheets of palette paper, and showed me how to move the paint around straight from the tube. We made thick, gloppy paintings. One day I brought my closet doors outside and made Abstract Expressionist paintings on them. My neighbor filmed me from the roof.
In college I started to make Color Field-influenced paintings, but I did not go to the art department; I was studying history. I also took art history classes, and had a teacher named Shaky Joe. One day he showed the work of German Expressionists. I got it; it was a complete understanding. Nolde, Kandinsky, and Marc had a big influence on me.
JS: You began your career in Boston, where you lived before coming to New York. What brought you there?
GA: I was teaching elementary school after college. Then I made the decision that I was going to move to the East Coast and be a painter. I didn’t even know what it meant. I built a rack for the back of my pickup truck and slid all the giant Color Field paintings in. Without knowing anybody, and without any introduction, I drove from Wisconsin to where I had heard Kenneth Noland lived. He had bought the Robert Frost house in South Shaftsbury, Vermont. I knocked on his door, introduced myself, and said, “I was wondering if you needed someone to work for you.”
He invited me in for coffee. He was doing plaid paintings and his studio was a riot of color – beautiful, like a candy store. He was also making flat geometric sculptures out of railroad ties. I moved into cabins in New Hampshire and had a beautiful arched barn that I used as a studio. About two weeks later I got a call from Ken. He said, “Gregory, are you good with tools?” I was. He said, “Do you want to come build sculpture?” I said, “No.” I didn’t want to do sculpture; I wanted to do painting. As a young person you make decisions seeing them in the micro, but they have macro consequences.
I moved to Boston, which I saw as a historic city, and I joined the Boston Visual Artists Union (BVAU). It was founded in the context of the 1960s, as an alternative to a commercial gallery. Through Nina Nielsen’s gallery, I got to know Jake Berthot and Harvey Quaytman. Nina began to show my work. I stopped doing the Color Field paintings and began making monochromatic encaustic work. Then, I began to feel that I was depending too much on the wax as a surface. The geometries of those paintings collapsed; the linear elements came loose, and they became organic forms.
JS: Organic forms and a relationship to the landscape is a key element in your work, although it is abstract. You also have a specific relationship to New Mexico, where you have spent a lot of time. Can you talk about that?
GA: My primary influence, up until that time, was Kandinsky. Another important moment was the Arthur Dove exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1976, curated by Barbara Haskell. She then organized several exhibitions of American modernists; she brought those artists to people’s attention. What I got from those shows was the American-ness of them. I related to that, coming from the Midwest.
So yes, I began to think more about natural forms, and landscape, to a certain extent. The suggestion of natural form is recurrent in the work. But the relationship to nature was not an idea I had, and then executed in the paintings. I didn’t know what I was doing until I looked at them for a couple of years.
I was taking trips to places that interested me. The West has always been the magic place for me. I first went to Texas in the 1970s and then I moved to New Mexico. New Mexico has everything – the light, the spectacular and volatile weather, the Spanish culture, the First Nation culture, and the Anglo culture. I was traveling, looking at things, and thinking about the feelings of the places that I went to. Then I would come back and make paintings that were inspired by those places, but which didn’t necessarily look like them.
Landscape, as an idea, has to do with longing. Paintings are alternate worlds – worlds unto themselves, manifested by each artist to satisfy a desire to fill a void. One summer I taught with Per Kirkeby at Skowhegan and he said that paintings are more real than actual experience. I thought about that, and took it to mean that painting is a distillation.
A painting takes some aspect of the world — maybe an emotional state — isolates it, and makes it more potent. A painting is edited and condensed, so the flavors are sharper and brighter and stronger. It can be as magical as an Agnes Martin. Her work does that: isolates, distills, and creates a world. With an unsuccessful painting, or when parts of a painting are annoying, you are not able to believe in that world.
JS: Your work shifted again in the late 1980s and 1990s. How did it change, and what inspired those transitions?
GA: The paintings I made in the 1980s were muscular and thick. I used paint as clay: layers that were shaped and molded. I didn’t think about the addition of light until the early 1990s. I ran away from the larger paintings, the thick paint, and all the toxins for a long time. I wanted to do something more luminous and more transparent. From 1989-91, I worked with rabbit skin glue and pigment. The paintings had great luminosity, because the white ground shone through, like a watercolor.
I also began using a more symbolic language. I gave some of the paintings biblical titles, in Spanish. I was thinking a lot about New Mexico — the culture and the churches. Father Friedhelm Mennekes, quite celebrated in the European art world, ran a “Kunsthalle” in a large Catholic church in Cologne. He saw my work and invited me to do an altarpiece project – a major triptych.
JS: How do you think you arrived at that thorn shape, which has been a recurrent form in the work?
GA: I made a big drawing in 1985, and kept it. I looked at it three years later when I was having a crisis in the work. I realized the form was like a body, and the stem in the middle was like a spine. Then I did a series of drawings that made it into a thorn. I realized it is a symbolic form with Christian associations, and I embraced it, because I needed a new way of thinking about the work.
With every idea, you play it out, and at some point you can’t squeeze any more out of it. The beauty of the current Frank Stella exhibition at the Whitney Museum is the way he constantly reinvents himself. It is magic because there are no rules. His work eventually goes against everything he initially started with. It goes into full composing, rhythms, and patterns.
JS: Some of your work involves pattern – lines and arabesques and repetitions of forms. Is that something you think about?
GA: I think in every painter, if you scratch the surface, there is an interest in pattern and decoration. I think about the Frederick Church house, Olana, which is based on Persian art and design. He made tiles with faux Arabic letters. He chose and mixed colors for each room. He had that impulse for pattern and decoration, even though you aren’t aware of that when you look at his work.
JS: You live with a collection of work by self-taught artists. How did you become interested in outsider art, and how is it meaningful to you?
GA: In the 1970s I made a trip to Chicago and went to the Phyllis Kind Gallery, where she had a show called “Outsider 2.” There were Joseph Yoakum drawings on the wall and I just thought, “There it is.” I started to collect that material and the work of mainstream artists as well. One of the first pieces I bought was by Ken Kiff, a prominent English artist. What I like about his work and the work of self-taught artists is the how fully they create an entire universe within the confines of their painting.
Artists like Martin Ramirez, Joseph Yoakum, Madge Gill, Minnie Evans, and Ana Zemankova require that you look at them in a fresh way because their work is made outside of the canon. It has a confidence and a clarity that isn’t beholden to tropes of Western thinking. Imagination is foregrounded. It fascinates me, so I like having it around as inspiration.
JS: You have taught for 18 years at Columbia University. How has this impacted your work, and what are some of the moments that have been particularly meaningful to you?
GA: Teaching makes you less likely to live in your own world and grow old in it. The entry point that a 30-year-old has is a different world than the world I entered. The zeitgeist, and what they inherit in terms of painting, is different. That is inspiring; the energy and excitement are palpable.
I remember the character of the art world in the late 1990s, when there were a lot of students who just couldn’t believe in painting. Then Dana Schutz came along. The quality of her work, and how she had a new way of bringing narrative into painting, gave everybody permission to start believing in painting again. I watched it happen in our own program, like lightning striking, saying, “We can do this again.” Also, Josephine Halvorson reinvented the idea of a still life. That was a very particular moment. In the face of a lot of criticism from visiting critics who asked, “Why would you do this?” she said, “I am doing it this way,” and she did.
JS: Can you tell me about the new work in your studio? I am curious how you arrive at these particular forms and combinations. Do they represent or suggest specific references or emotional states for you?
GA: I always loved the expression that Abraham Lincoln used in his second inaugural address: “the mystic chords of memory.” It is a beautiful idea and so open to interpretation. The paintings I made in the early 1990s had these loopy, open forms that I thought of as celestial spaces – inset windows into outer space.
In this new body of work, there is a return to those loopy forms. They swing down into the paintings and animate what is otherwise a fairly rigid geometry. I think of those forms as holding a different space, a different kind of light. They might be an interruption of movement, from day into night, or from spring into summer. Or, they are like glimpsing an oasis, or seeing a flood coming.
That dialectic is interesting to me. Many of Breugel’s paintings are composed using a similar dialectical structure – a particular light in the foreground, and, in the distance, a light presaging things to come. Martin Johnson Heade’s paintings of approaching storms also function that way.
I think of the great Bob Dylan line at the beginning of the Martin Scorsese film, “No Direction Home.” Dylan says, “I set out to find this home that I’d left a while back. I couldn’t remember exactly where it was, but I’m on my way there. I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, so I’m on my way home.”
“Being here and looking there” is a primary idea for me – being in one space, but thinking about, or looking into, another. Looking at the horizon and remembering or imagining a distant place represents a feeling of destiny or hope, although when you arrive, it is simply another horizon.
Combining the character of one place with the character of another, is fundamental to a lot of art. It is a film idea. It is a Matisse idea – inside the room is the violin and afternoon light, and outside are the boats on the Mediterranean. In Bonnard’s paintings, there is anxiety and shadow inside, and outside is the garden. Painting can represent a space where you imagine another world. An example is Albert Pinkham Ryder, where a small seascape becomes a giant space; the size is small but the scale is enormous.
There is a body of work I did called “Starry Floor” which were all about our feet of clay. Human beings are constantly trying to release themselves from gravity and ascend. It doesn’t have do be religion. Music can do that. Yet, when you slap yourself, you still can’t get off the ground; you are stuck in the mud. You want to soar like an angel, but you can’t. Painting is a way of inviting people, “Dream with me.”