Gary Stephan and Suzanne Joelson live and work together in a building in TriBeCa. Within the building they each maintain individual floors, so my suggestion of a “couple” interview was a bit of a radical experiment. We had to decide how and where to stage our visit. Luckily they were game, ready with Captain’s Daughter IPA, and an array of cheese and snacks.
Their zones are distinct: Stephan doesn’t keep anything extra around — leaving only some minimal, modernist furniture, a vintage rowing machine for exercise, and a fantastic rotating easel. Joelson’s area is full of color, with layered collections of fabrics, textiles, and clippings in full use. Stephan says he’s lucky that he can borrow supplies from Joelson when he needs them; he refuses to buy anything in advance. They use examples from domestic life to illustrate their aesthetics: Joelson apparently doesn’t like closing closet doors — it denotes a system of closed deductions. More than anything, I’m struck by their open, inquisitive nature with each other.
This rigorous but open questioning permeates both of their practices. Joelson asks what happens when two unexpected elements or techniques bump up against one another: collaged, industrial fabrics and the painterly, handmade gesture. Stephan refers to a formalist vocabulary, but turns any lingering obsession with the “framing edge” upside-down. There’s a curiosity in their work about different permutations of “meeting in the middle,” which is, in fact, echoed by the terms of our three-person conversation.
Stephan was born in Brooklyn in 1942, studied at Pratt Institute, and received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1967. He has had solo shows in New York at Susan Inglett Gallery, Bykert Gallery, Mary Boone Gallery, Hirschl and Adler, and Marlborough Gallery; in Los Angeles at Margo Leavin Gallery and Daniel Weinberg Gallery. He is currently represented by Kienzle Art Foundation in Berlin, where he will be the subject of a solo exhibition in the fall.
Joelson was born in 1952 in Paterson, New Jersey. She received her BA from Bennington College in 1973. She has exhibited at galleries including Nature Morte in New Delhi, Fernando Alcolea in Barcelona, and White Columns in New York. She was the subject of a solo exhibition, Slipping Systems, in the fall of 2016 at Studio 10, Brooklyn, New York.
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Jennifer Samet: Suzanne, can you tell me about any childhood memories you have of making art?
Suzanne Joelson: My mother was a painter. When I was twelve I helped her paint scenery for a local theater group and got to keep the paint. When friends came over we painted the walls of my bedroom with stripes and dots in clashing colors right over the patterned wallpaper. My parents were fine with this and I continued to alter the room until I left for college. All these years later I am back to combining paint and print.
I did not have many toys but I remember breaking, cutting, and reassembling the ones I had. Doll houses got major overhauls. At some point my mother hid the nicer dolls either to protect them or avoid cramping my style.
In high school I had a geometry teacher who did not like me. But I was oddly good at geometry. I just got it and did not need the class so she let me spend the time in the art room.
I went to the Noguchi Museum recently and thought that it was a bit like the art that I grew up seeing. It is beautiful and essentialist, and yet it’s not enough. There’s always a sense of Noguchi being a little too good.
JS: Gary, where did you grow up? Were you into drawing as a kid?
GS: When I was a kid living in Levittown, on Long Island, like a lot of guys, I loved drawing planes and cars. I remember that in the fifth grade, I was very enamored of this other kid’s drawings. His planes looked so much better than mine, but I couldn’t figure out why. I befriended him and finally said, “Bill, let’s be candid, your planes are much better than mine. Why?” He said, “Rivets. I draw all the rivets.” I realized that was it. He had all these little dots, so it felt like it had been built like a real plane.
We would go to Mass in Levittown Hall, where local artists put their work up on the walls. The work was full of the tropes of late 1940s art: caulk balls dipped in white paint, held together with sticks, on a ground of sandpaper. It was slightly Miró-ish, or like Picabia drawings — quasi-mechanical things. I did not understand what they were but I was attracted to the physicality of them, and the curious form-making. So the plane drawings and my interest in that work run along next to each other.
I had flunked 7th, 8th, and 9th grade. Eventually I got an art teacher who saw me drawing cars all the time and said, “You know, there’s a name for that. It’s called industrial design.” I decided that was it, and that I would go to Pratt for it. But then I fell in with the painters and, before graduating, I went out to the West Coast. I went to the San Francisco Art Institute for my Masters. Eventually, the two forces came together. A lot of my approach to painting is still with that clear, coherent, “What’s the project?” mindset of a designer.
JS: Gary, I wanted to ask you about your Catholic background, because you have said Catholic imagery, like the cruciform shape, has infiltrated your painting.
Gary Stephan: Although I’m now an atheist, I still have some of the Catholic furniture. Every once in awhile, its forms appear, or ideas about above and below: the spiritual plane and the bodily plane. I don’t resist it, but I don’t embrace it. I just let it roll into the mix and then it rolls out again.
When I was in first grade at Catholic school, I read a story called “The Prince’s Dessert,” which was the beginning of my fascination with paradox. The prince asks for a dessert that’s hot and cold at the same time. The punch line was that it was a hot fudge sundae.
I was disappointed with the outcome of the story — because a sundae is alternately hot and cold. It isn’t simultaneously hot and cold. As a boy I felt tricked by the answer. Anyway, these kinds of polarities have interested me since childhood.
As a Catholic, I never thought of the concept of shades of gray in ethical, moral, or emotional questions. That idea did not occur to me until I was well into my second year of college. It was uncomfortable for me, because it didn’t come to me naturally. I was constructed by my parents and by my church to be fundamentally binary. I know the world is not like that. It is fascinating how disappointing that is.
JS: Did the two of you meet originally through art? Suzanne, you were working for Robert Rauschenberg, right?
SJ: I worked for Merce Cunningham as the liaison between Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and Merce. I was hanging out in that period with Ross Bleckner, Julian Schnabel, and David Salle. Gary had an opening at Mary Boone, and I went to the opening with Julian. Gary and I talked for about an hour. I was completely smitten and thought I’d made a big impression. But I wasn’t even invited to the after party.
Then, two weeks later, Gary came to a Cunningham event at the Joyce Theater. I was with Ross, and after we took him to Studio 54, I took Gary home. He didn’t even remember me.
GS: It took a while for it to click, but once it clicked it was crazy great. We’ve been together for an amazing amount of time — 38 years. I’m incredibly lucky.
JS: Suzanne, do you think your use of recycled fabrics and materials from the street is related to the experience of doing costume and set design?
SJ: I hadn’t thought about it but one of my favorite tasks working for Cunningham was recreating Rauschenberg’s set for “Winterbranch” (1964). At some point in the nocturnal piece Rauschenberg would drag what we called “the monster” across stage. It was usually a rolling ladder with an array of battery-operated lights and things he would find on the street. I loved doing it, even though I wasn’t as good at it as Rauschenberg was. He always had a more unlikely thought.
There is something about working with preexisting materials, adapting things outside one’s control. After Hurricane Sandy, I carried my wet paintings up six flights of stairs in the dark, with two assistants. The paintings were on hollow-core doors and water was sloshing around in them. When I ripped off the backs, a roughly applied cardboard substructure was revealed. Its diamond pattern was almost like African Kuba cloth but by different means. We arranged the paintings around the loft to dry with all the backs ripped off, and took photographs of the arrangements.
The effect of that experience was an idea of being very transitory about the work: being less caught up in the craft of it, less concerned about permanence. For a long time, I was a “pure” painter. At some point I started bringing the world back into the paintings. I don’t believe in zero-degree formalism.
JS: I am curious what you think about this, Gary: the idea of pure painting and formalism.
GS: My elevator pitch for my work is that I am using the tools of formalism to build the house of surrealism. I see formalism as a set of appearances designed to create something that’s visually dependable. The contribution of Surrealism is that it problematizes the reading of the world. If you take the appearance of formalism, but bang the cues into each other in such a way that the picture space wobbles or flickers, or doesn’t work properly — you are making a surreal proposition about formalism.
When I came to New York, the big division was between the sharp guys who made serious, formal objects, and the crazy aunt in the attic — of surrealism. Richard Serra would say, “The problem with Donald Judd’s work is that it is surreal.” He was referring to the concealed surfaces – things you can never know. Anytime you conceal, you’re essentially making a surreal object. That’s why Serra’s sculptures are solid steel. Anything that existed outside our vision would become secretive, mysterious, and romantic. The work has to be in plain sight and experiential.
But I could not just blow off de Chirico and Magritte. The contribution of de Chirico is that, for almost the first time in history, aside from Caspar David Friedrich, concealment is content. It is subject matter.
In my work, I try to have enough dependable information that there is a way to compare it to the missing part. The purpose is to re-engage viewers so that instead of them passively taking in the work at the level of style, you offer them the opportunity to engage the problematics of the picture space. In engaging them, they become co-constructors.
SJ: There’s also a lesson in that: that nothing is reliable. Your paintings seem like an inoculation for our collective anxiety about the contradictions of the world. You practice not being able to depend on a predictable space.
GS: Absolutely. It gets to the Russian idea of defamiliarization and the Brechtian idea of alienation. What they want to do is get the viewer into the pain of responsibility in a difficult world at the level of play. You are making art, so it should be fun, but it is also dealing with essentially difficult questions.
It has to do with the citizen’s relationship to the world. For example, I think one of the reasons Trump is appealing to people is that he is saying, “Only I can solve this problem.” It is essentially a paternalistic model. The academic model of painting was essentially paternalistic. It says, “We’ve got all the cards; we know what art looks like; we’re in charge; you’re in good hands.” It’s very Trumpian. What happens with the Impressionists is they say, “Who knows how this works? Get involved, maybe you don’t like it, maybe you don’t trust it. You can co-construct this if you’re so inclined.”
JS: Suzanne, can you tell me about how you deconstruct order and sequences? I know you utilize the Fibonacci cycle in constructing your paintings and multi-panel pieces.
SJ: I tend to start with an order, which I resist. But sometimes it is the other way around and I tug the visual cacophony toward a system. I utilize the Fibonacci cycle, but contaminate it with a degree of lived life.
My cousin who lives in Paris visited recently and we had a sort of French night out in Soho. On our way from Lucky Strike to dessert at Balthazar, we passed the biggest mass of rats I have ever seen in New York. On a shop-filled block we crossed the street to get out of their way. In the context of that evening it was the most exciting part.
GS: Wow. There’s a unique take — “Dessert was great, but the rats were even better.”
SJ: I’ve had lots of great desserts but how often have I seen that many persistent rats? They were undeterred by gentrification. I think about the fact that now, psychologically, so much is colored by what is happening with the Trump presidency. I constantly contend with the question of how much news and information I can digest.
GS: I’ve thought for a long time that if I paid really close attention to politics and then didn’t say to myself, “How can I consciously translate this into a work of art,” but let it leach into the groundwater of my brain, it would show up on some level. I think it does. The conversation I’ve been having with friends is basically, “What can be the relationship of abstraction to politics?”
JS: So this has to do with an idea about incorporating experience and contaminating “pure painting” with daily experience?
SJ: The interest in the Fibonacci sequence and spiraling goes back to the way I have thought about experience, which is as a coil. You go on a route and arrive at a shard of light, and recognize where you are. Then you keep going, and get back to that part again. But you are not going in circles, you are constantly staging a step up…or down.
In Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator describes traveling from Balbec in a stagecoach. The coach is going up the hill and away. As it turns along the switchback, he can see back toward the town he has just left. He keeps looking back toward it, but from a little farther, as he is heading toward the future. Then, on the switchback, yet again, he looks back on where he just was, but now he is turned even more. That becomes a metaphor for how memory works.
Thomas Nozkowski came to my studio once when I was working on something that was overly coordinated and he said, “Jump cut.” That was all he needed to say. Now it is my mantra.
GS: It is related to the mosque you loved so much in Turkey, I’ve also always thought that a lot of Suzanne’s work had to do with translation.
SJ: Yes, the interior of the Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul is beautiful and perfect. There are four doors outside, and the door farthest from the entrance is completely broken up. The original tiles were found and put back on, but not in the original order. I love that kind of patching. It is similar to the Winchester Cathedral in England, where one rose window on the north transom was broken into smithereens and reassembled out of broken bits.
I consider different materials and methods of application in terms of translation. The model is conversation. For example, this format of today’s conversation is unusual for all of us. We can’t anticipate each other’s questions or responses, or the gap between what is said and what is felt or experienced, and how it will read on the page or screen. These change in the context of the situation. I am interested in how the familiar becomes strange, and the structure becomes fallible. A new thought emerges or an old thought can be re-imagined.
JS: Gary, you have described having “two masters”: the object and the painting. Can you explain what that means?
GS: That phrase, “serving two masters,” came from a chapter heading in an old fundamentalist Christian primer that I found. In terms of painting, at one end of the spectrum, you have the master of the concrete object — someone like Robert Ryman. At the other end of the spectrum, you have somebody like Frederick Church — the illusion of a space that can be entered. With Church, you want to experience Niagara Falls uncontaminated by the resistance of the object. With Ryman, you want the clarity of the object without any of the froufrou of the picture space.
Everybody conducts his or her practice along that continuum. That is what is meant by the serving two masters. Anytime you show fealty to one, you’ve weakened your fealty to the other. I was once given a hard time in print for “being compromised”: for the work vacillating between its allegiance to objects, and its allegiance to picture space. That vacillation was seen as a failure of nerve. I think times have changed enough that now it is considered a good way to look at things.
JS: You work on paintings from all directions and sides, and use a rotating easel to turn them around. Is that related to these ideas of concealment and moving between the object and the image?
GS: The circular easel allows me to mess with expectations about gravity and the punch line. Sometimes I give way to the more obvious expectation, because I don’t see any reason to be obscure. Sometimes, it is too easy, so I turn them backwards, so to speak. Then they are slower. When you finally get to the punch line, it is more of a surprise.
JS: You think of the paintings as having punch lines? What does that mean?
GS: I definitely do. It is a term I got from Tom Nozkowski years ago. He would say, “Well, the gag of this painting is…” Some people see them right away, and some people never see them. I’ve had any number of people think they’re simply delightful, flat designs, and I think, “Okay.” I’ve gotten over the artist as educator part of my life.
SJ: Whereas Rothko hoped that people would fall to their knees and start to cry in front of his paintings, you want to hear people chuckling.
GS: Yes. I want them mildly chortling under their breath.