Peter Acheson, “Eva Hesse” (2011-2015), oil, acrylic and collage on canvas, 12 x 16 inches (all photos by Charles Benton and courtesy Brennan & Griffin)

Peter Acheson, who lives in upstate New York, uses his living room as his winter studio. The “hearth,” which we sit around, is an old bookcase/hutch. He uses it as a provisional viewing station for paintings — propping them up and rotating them on the shelves and along the floor — as we talk. It’s also where he keeps the sound system and a stack of CDs. The Stones or Dylan are usually on deck.  A paint-splattered tarpaulin lies in front of the bookcase, and chairs are pushed to the edges of the room. Jars of acrylic paint and yogurt containers filled with brushes are right on the floor; this is where he works.

It’s a painting and rock ’n’ roll den, where art is the total, almost devotional focus; Acheson does not care about trading niceties or being ingratiating. He would rather propose and debate philosophical ideas. But he’s been quoting poetry all day, ever since he met me in a café in Hudson, where he was holding a copy of Robert Bly’s Eight Stages of Translation. We read Guillaume IX of Poitier’s “In the Great Sweetness of Spring” together, and one passage in particular became a point of reference: “Our love moves in this way: / like a branch of the hawthorn tree / …I want my God to let me live / to have my hands beneath her cloak again…”

Peter Acheson (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A similar combination of rawness and sensitivity is what gives Acheson’s work its potency and range. His paintings are ravaged, earthy, and acutely considered, all at once. They employ a host of painterly gestures, mark-making, and collaged interruptions to the surfaces. He often paints on rough panels, burlap, and wood scraps, and attaches found elements like seashells and animal bones. He makes delicate, scribbly line drawings on paper, à la Henri Michaux. He also makes paintings with mysterious pictographic forms, bands of color, and dense layers of impasto paint. He frequently scrawls the names of his artist-heroes, or lines from poems,  across the paintings. They are abstract odes to felt experience.

Peter Acheson was born in Washington, DC in 1954 and received his BFA from Yale in 1976. He was an early member of the Williamsburg art scene in the 1980s, and now lives and works in Ghent, New York. His work has been exhibited at Novella Gallery, New York; John Davis Gallery, Hudson; the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York; Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York; and Baumgartner Gallery, New York. In the winter and spring of 2017, he was the subject of two solo exhibitions, at Thompson Giroux Gallery, Chatham, New York, and at Brennan & Griffin, New York.

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Jennifer Samet: Do you have childhood memories that factor into your paintings?

Peter Acheson: I have this memory from when I was about four years old. I was on a tiny beach in Cape Cod, digging my feet in the sand at the waterline. I got my legs fully buried under the lapping water, and felt something under my toes.  I kept trying to reach it but it was way down at the bottom of a hole. Finally I pulled it out and saw that it was a small toy truck.  It was metal and old, probably something from the 1940s. It was so corroded that the original shape of the truck was obscured into a pitted, abstract mass. To my eyes as a child, it was highly mysterious.

I was overwhelmed by the sense of discovery and wonder of excavation. I think about that still, because at certain moments I have felt a shudder of recognition — that same feeling of wonder and discovery. I have felt it with images in my own paintings that seemed to spring from a buried place outside of myself. And I’ve had it when looking at other art and objects. It was strong when I saw Cy Twombly’s plaster sculpture, which can be just on the other side of recognizability, as if they are weathered or eroded. They are like manmade things that are returning to nature. Everything has been softened. That is a quality I am looking for.

Myron Stout’s paintings can look like some kind of goddess sculpture from pre-dynastic Greece that’s been buried in the Mediterranean for one thousand years, and excavated. Is it a creature with two horns, or is it a seashell? That sort of mystery is what art taps into.

Peter Acheson, “Untitled” (2015), oil, acrylic and collage on board, 17.5 x 21.25 inches

JS: You studied at Yale in the 1970s. How did it impact your development as a painter?

PA: Yale was very much a problem-solving environment. Al Held was the dominant force and the graduate critiques would also include William Bailey, Bernard Chaet, and Lester Johnson. They would say things like, “He has to turn the figure three quarters of the way around, or “The foreshortening on the arm isn’t long enough.” There was a dissection of the painting as if it was a math problem to be solved. That affected my thinking about painting; I used to think like that.

Judy Pfaff and Joseph Santore were also there, and everybody talked about how “You’ve gotta make space.” I bought into it for a while, and when I got out of college, I was trying to make overlapping planes. They never looked spatial enough to me. Then I would sort of get confused by Minimalism.

Now, I don’t care about space; I’m interested in place. I want the painting to be an extremely specific event. It is as if you were walking in the woods and you saw a tree with rotting mushrooms growing out of it. You’re interested in it; you’re drawn to it; you’re looking at it thinking, “God, that’s so beautiful.” Then you look up and you see silhouettes of pine trees against the blue sky. It’s a completely different event, but it is the same world.

In several paintings, I have incorporated text from the poem “The Deer Fence,” by the Tang dynasty poet Wang Wei. It is one of the most famous poems in the Classical Chinese canon. “Empty mountain / no one to be seen / but hear — human sounds / returning sunlight enters the dark woods  / shining again on green moss.”  It is nineteen Chinese characters, but English speakers have translated the poem in a wide variety of ways. Eliot Weinberger wrote about this in his book 19 Ways of looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem is Translated (1995). I love that idea: how did all that variety get built into it?

Peter Acheson, “Untitled” (2012), acrylic and collage on canvas, 12 x 9 inches

JS: Your exhibition in Chatham incorporated different painting approaches, and work from different periods, installed in little groupings. Why is variation important to you?

PA: When your vocabulary is dispersed enough, you can go from one painting to a totally different one. I am hardly ever stuck on one. It is a formal strategy that I devised for myself: you make fifteen different things, and hopefully they will circumscribe a circle that you could loosely describe as yourself.

I think of it as a polytheistic aesthetic, and it’s my response to the stress of having to find one style that suited me. You and I and each of us are like the cast of Hamlet — a play with many actors. Our psyche incorporates all of those characters. James Hillman is the psychoanalyst writer of the polytheistic soul. He said the Greeks had it right. You have to have your God of War. And when you are in command, you better have your Zeus; you can’t be Eros. All these characters are necessary.

I am not interested in being a reductive formal artist. I grew up in a reductive formal environment. I went to private school, and a private college. I was expected to achieve, to be good. I grew up with Chris Martin; we were best friends since childhood in Washington, DC, and we talk about this all the time.  The expectations on us were so high that we just want to fail.

I was told, “You are an Acheson.” So doing what I am doing is tremendous freedom. Once I sent Chris a text message saying, “I made a really bad painting today and I love it.” He sent me back a text saying, “Irrevocably bad, irredeemably bad, terribly bad, awfully bad…!” I have gotten out from under that WASP work ethic. I don’t want to harsh painting’s mellow by getting all formalist on it.

When my youngest daughter was seven, she saw me painting in the house and would ask if she could paint too. At the end of the evening, there would be five paintings by her and one of mine. All of hers were much better and I thought about why that was.

Peter Acheson, “Untitled (Clearing)” (2010), oil and acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 inches

When I was about seven years old, I was sent to private school and had to start wearing a tie, get my hair cut, shine my shoes. I was being told, “Peter, it’s time to grow up.” I had to leave my seven-year-old imaginative inner feminine behind. My daughter Izzy came along years later and demonstrated what that was, right in front of me. I come to the canvas with all this baggage. In that period, from about 2004-07, I tried to unpack that baggage, to get more childlike and open.

JS: Does being open mean not making many painting decisions in advance?

PA: I don’t want intention to be the driving thing. It’s more about an aesthetic response. It is similar to the response of going outside and saying, “Wow, what a beautiful day.” You didn’t conceive it. You didn’t invent the trees or the sky or the car or whatever. You just go, “Fuck, what beautiful light right now.”

That is the state I want to present to the viewer. It doesn’t matter what the content is. It could be a mud puddle; it could be a bright red tractor in the rain; it could be your girlfriend’s face; it could be a cat.

Hillman discusses how the word “aesthetic” is related to the Greek word “aisthesis,” which means “to breathe in” — a sudden intake of breath. He said when something causes you to suck in your breath, that’s aesthetics. That is what I work for.

JS: You often write the names of other artists right on your paintings. It’s like announcing your influences. I was thinking about how you like Julian Schnabel, who seems to be an artist unafraid of taking from other artists. Can you talk about that, and some of your other artist heroes?

Peter Acheson, “Eva Hesse” (2016), oil and acrylic on canvas, 12 x 28 inches

PA: Yes, Schnabel is a big, grandiose, open-hearted, wear-it-on-your-sleeve artist, and I love that about him. His work is saying, in effect, “I am just making a love letter to Twombly.” They are big acts of erotic interest — in Van Gogh with the Roses, in Twombly with the blobs of paint. The great thing about Schnabel is that it is an act. It is painting as a performance art, like a band up on stage. What is the act? How well does your band play? Schnabel’s whole act is making the movies, being the director, wearing the bathrobe.

In his autobiography C.V.J. (1957), Schnabel talks about the work of a painter as “a bouquet of mistakes.” That is poetry — because we are all going to make mistakes. But, what if you made the mistakes on a twenty-foot scale and they ended up being beautiful?

I am proceeding by means of granting myself more and more permission. It is like, “I just visited [Forrest] Bess in my studio today; we hung out.” Or, it’s a fantasy of being in Raoul de Keyser’s studio and he asks me, “Hey, do you want to study with me for a while?” I say, “Fuck, yeah; you’re one of my heroes.” So I paint like de Keyser for a while.

Peter Acheson, “Palermo in…” (2015), oil, acrylic and collage on panel, 18 x 24 inches

Blinky Palermo’s painting series “Times of the Day” (1974-76) at Dia:Beacon is another thing I am influenced by right now. The paintings are so specific.

JS: You mentioned allowing oneself to make mistakes. Can you talk about the idea of failed paintings and how that is part of your process? Also, you mentioned big paintings, but you tend to work on a medium to small scale. Why is that?

PA: I am interested in the idea of making a painting that fails. Sometimes I will be making a painting and say to myself, “This painting is just failing.” Then I’ll look at it for a long time, and sometimes realize the painting is not actually failing.

I’ve made big paintings before, but I am no longer interested in impressing anyone. I want to draw your attention. My heroes are artists like Myron Stout, Forrest Bess, Gandy Brodie, and Jan Müller, who work on a dense, small scale.  You always are walking up to the painting. You’re drawn in.

It is like the way you would look at a rose bush. It draws you in and rewards close looking with the feeling of general erotic attraction. Hillman says that it is not a question of whether it’s good or bad. It is a question of whether you are interested in it. The Latin root of interest is inter esse, which means “to be between.” There is an energy; it’s not just the painting; it’s not just you. It makes you think, “I am interested in this.”

JS: Your work often becomes object-like; you collage pieces of wood or other scraps onto the surface, and sometimes use irregularly shaped panels. How does that impact the work?

PA: I want to proceed by means of violations and defacements. Often, I am trying to violate the abstract painting language. So I will glue scraps of wood onto the work. I tend to save things and have a shop in my studio, so this stuff is around. I love paintings, but I like using objects to challenge their painting-ness.

Peter Acheson, “Untitled (Thornton Dial)” (2012), oil, acrylic and collage on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

I have been in the position before, when I was painting only with oil on canvas   and I always had this feeling, “The world doesn’t look like this.” The world has got all this shit in it: thin people, fat people, babies. My sneaker has a hole in it, my car has a flat tire. How do you get all that experience — experiences like watching your wife give birth — into your work?

I want my wobbly, uneven life in the work. An artist with a solid base under him or her can make a work that is, as Schnabel said, “a bouquet of mistakes.” It’s like — I broke up with the wrong woman; I was in love with the wrong woman; I was a fool. The fool can make the painting. Why edit the fool out? Why edit out the bad luck? Why edit out the heartbreak? Why edit out the joy and the ecstatic?

JS: Despite the fact that you talk about incorporating failure, I feel that each one of your paintings in the show at Chatham is so beautifully considered, and has a sense of quality. Do you think about “quality”? 

PA: Yes, and I love this question. In the early 1960s, the Beat poets, especially Allen Ginsberg, were criticized for not caring about quality, for just getting drunk and saying whatever they wanted to. Gary Snyder was asked about this in an interview. He said, “I worship at the lotus feet of Quality.”

I agree; I want quality like the experience of seeing a hummingbird on a flower.  The particularity of that event, the quality of the flower, the bird, its energy, and the fact that it even exists, puts you in a divine state of grace.  You are hooked on the quality of the experience. It is like looking at a lichen-covered rock on the North Peak in the Catskills, seeing an owl feather, or experiencing an autumn day. It is a natural event but it’s stunningly beautiful in its particularity.  I don’t want the work to be general. I want it to be extremely specific. The quality is tied to the particular attributes of a place. It’s not space, it’s not casual, it’s not sloppy. I am asking the painting to speak back to me, and until it’s speaking back to me, I will keep working on it. You know when a painting is done when you fall in love.

JS: Tell me more about the connection between love and painting.

PA: Several years ago, I was dating a woman artist who was such a muse.  I was in love and it was just fantastic. For six months I went around feeling like I could not fail because all I had to do was work on the paintings, and let that energy be there. The muse energy was bigger than me, and I was spreading it out over all these canvases. I was making the paintings that the art dealer Kevin Rita calls my “vibratory paintings” using the side of the brush. I could make formal decisions, but the general approach was just ecstatic. Then I would go back into the paintings and tighten them up.

Peter Acheson, “Untitled (Reef)” (2016), oil and acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

I think about Eros and love. The equation is that you start with beauty — beauty in the world, beauty in a person, or beauty in a painting. Beauty creates desire. It creates an attraction, which, in a human being, translates as desire. It is not mere wanting.  You can solve wanting by going to the mall. Desire is unattainable. Robert Bly says, “I desire to be as great a poet as Shakespeare.” It’s not going to happen, but the desire for that makes life sweet.

Hillman says, “Desire creates the growth of the wings of imagination.” To me, that makes a lot more sense than sitting around figuring out a problem. There is a Rainer Maria Rilke poem called “Remembering,” which is about this. It is about looking for something that will, in Rilke’s phrase, “infinitely increase your life.” I think about the idea that there is a painting in your future, either as the viewer or the maker, that will “infinitely increase your life.” You haven’t found it yet, but you better get busy.

The key is that you might not find it. It is in the looking, the working hard enough. I am in a hurry to find that painting. I may not find it, but the journey towards trying to find it will be fucking awesome.

Jennifer Samet, Ph.D. is a New York-based art historian, curator, and writer. She completed her dissertation at the CUNY Graduate Center on Painterly Representation in New York: 1945-1975. She has lectured...