InterviewsWeekend

Artists Quarantine With Their Art Collections

“I have been looking at this painting and receiving relief like a cool drink on a hot day.”

Dan Devening, “Untitled” (2016), acrylic on Yupo on panel, 20 x 16 inches (image courtesy Gary Stephan)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Continuing my inquiry into the ways that artists look at the work they live with, I’ve been asking the following questions: In the context of rampant disease, do you look at your personal collection differently now, and which works in particular? Is there one that especially resonates with you at this weird, frightening moment? And does it take on new meaning?

Andrea Belag, “Cello” (2018), oil on wood panel, 11 x 14 inches (image courtesy Judith Linhares)

Judith Linhares (Brooklyn): In these long indoor days, the tendency toward reflection is pretty much endless. I’m fortunate to have friends to talk to on the phone, paintings to make, and a big, light place to inhabit. My walls are stacked high with works by artist friends. I really like showing my collection to visitors — it is almost like sharing a family album. The works have been acquired over a lifetime and represent so many different time periods, ways of making things, ways of thinking about things, and the comradeship that is the artist-to-artist world.

I sometimes wonder: what is art for? Lately I’ve been drawn to a small oil painting on wood panel by Andrea Belag. When I chose the painting, I said to Andrea, “It looks like cello music,” meaning it has low tones and they arrive in a minor key. The values are close in range with the exception of a cold pink swath running at a slight diagonal. The reds, greens, and blues are on the dark side. I have been looking at this painting and receiving relief like a cool drink on a hot day.

The way I see this painting hasn’t changed from my spontaneous first reaction, but in our new reality my need to see it has changed. The painting seems to hold and express the feelings I have but can’t fully experience because my vigilant survival mode stands in the way. This painting is not designed or premeditated; it has the sense of arriving in one spontaneous act, the strokes of paint drifting down in slow motion, transparent over the somewhat visible wood support. I see what I crave in this painting: timelessness, and connection to a lyrical but somber range of feeling.

Christopher Dunlap, “Untitled” (2013), oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 x 20 inches (image courtesy Paul Corio)

Paul Corio (Manhattan): Monastic solitude turns out to be something I enjoy. I find it peaceful and comforting. I’m not sure that I’m seeing any specific works anew, but I am certainly looking at things a lot more, savoring so much of my collection. There’s a Chris Dunlap painting in my living room that I come back to frequently. The figures are geometric and loosely arranged in a grid, but they’re composed and colored in such a way as to suggest flowers. I love paintings of flowers. I hung the picture adjacent to the sunniest window in my apartment because flowers need sunshine.

One reason I chose this work over so many others is that it’s been such a damned gloomy spring. Chris’s fleurettes have a nearly maniacal cheerfulness about them. The sophistication of the palette and space provide scaffolding for their good-natured goofiness, and those two opposing qualities come together to give the picture an air of insouciance that has great appeal at this particular moment.

Gordon Moore, “Division” (2016), latex and potassium ferocianide on photo emulsion paper, 11 x 13 ½ inches (image courtesy Lauren Henkin)

Lauren Henkin (Rockland, Maine): I first saw Gordon Moore’s work in an exhibition at Betty Cuningham Gallery in 2014. The show included paintings and photo emulsion drawings. Both were compelling, but the drawings struck a chord. There is a lushness to the grounds — beautifully printed photographs toned in warm yellows and grays — which, combined with marks of ink and gouache, suggest a velvet canvas scorched by electricity. It was as if the artist had formed a wire sculpture and then tracked its slow progress of shadow-making across a concrete surface, his hand creating furcated markings of time passing.

Quarantine has forced on me a strange relationship to time. One moment is filled with reflection and pause; the next, a casual glint of thought tossed into the wind. Mon-day, Tues-day, Wednes-day are no more. All that remain are day and night.

One of Gordon’s drawings hangs on the wall beside my desk. I see it whenever l look up from my computer. Throughout the day, I can see how light engages the work. In the morning, the sun buoys the light areas of the drawing. At night, the dark tones recede deeper into space.

The drawing has replaced my clock. It’s a beautiful and needed reminder that time can be measured not by seconds, hours, or days but by marks, tone, and depth.

Left to right: Philip Stephan, “Untitled” (c. 1920), enamel on wood; David Rhodes, “Untitled 4.1.2014” (2014), acrylic on canvas, 24 x 22 inches; reproduction of Pieter de Hooch, “Woman with a Child in a Pantry” (c. 1656-1660); (image courtesy Gary Stephan)

Gary Stephan (Manhattan): My thoughts might serve as counterpoint. I designed my studio to have two distinct parts. The main space is the painting studio. Beyond is a paneled room somewhat out of time — a retreat, in both senses, from the world around me. When I arrive in the back room, the first thing I see is a Dan Devening from 2016 over the work table. The painting is fully alert, bringing my day to attention. On the wall opposite are three works. On the left is a small plaque with an animal head painted by my grandfather; on the right is a reproduction of a Dutch interior that hung in the hall of my childhood home. Between them is a David Rhodes painting from 2014.

The nature of the Rhodes painting and the two works that flank it has not changed, but their interplay is a way out of the world for me. Until writing this, I had not realized that I have spent more time holding my gaze in active give-and-take with this ever-shimmering space than with any work of my own. It serves me well as a refuge from the storm roiling just outside.

Allan McCollum, “Plaster Surrogate” (1984), enamel on cast Hydrostone, 8 ½ x 6 ¼ x 1 1/16 inches (image courtesy Peter Scott)

Peter Scott (Brooklyn): This Allan McCollum “surrogate painting” has been on and off the wall at home over many years. At some point I became aware of the back story for the work: Allan was working as a janitor at night, and when he looked into the windows of other offices and apartment buildings he saw what appeared to be art on the walls but, being far away and lacking definition, he wondered “how do I know these are artworks?” This experience of an artwork as a kind of generalized image led to the idea of a “stand in” or surrogate painting, an emblem (as he puts it, “like a big tooth outside a dentist’s office”) that shifts the emphasis from the subjective content of the work to its material status as an object.

The surrogate is cast in plaster and painted. Its function as a generic representation for art-on-the-wall is contradicted by its awkward physicality. The picture frame lacks squareness, the lines aren’t clean, the surface is rough; the idealized or platonic nature of an object standing in for all artworks comes face to face with the highly specific terms of its object nature. At once an overlooked piece of art on the wall, as if noticed with peripheral vision, and undeniably a “thing” in our presence, the surrogate painting provides the comfort associated with art in the home, but without the added reassurance of knowable content.

What draws me to this work right now is the feeling of ambivalence between being safely ensconced at home and a looming uncertainty and despair outside. It offers neither a metaphorical window for imagining another time or place, nor the uniqueness of an artist’s style that might reassuringly confirm our taste. While lending the promise of art to our experience, we’re reminded that the responsibility for what we see ultimately comes back to us. The thing we once approximated is suddenly up close.

Unknown photographer, “Cora Williams with Fishing Rod and Talking Crow” (circa 1920), 9 x 12 inches (image courtesy Susanna Coffey)

Susanna Coffey (Manhattan/Salem, Connecticut): This image of Great-Grandmother Cora Williams on her daughter’s porch stooping to feed her crow, fishing pole nearby, has been on a wall of every place I’ve lived since 1977. I recently brought it from New York to Salem, and yesterday I passed the house where it was taken. My sister, the writer Jane Coffey, printed it years ago from a glass negative found in an old chest. At first, I was struck as much by its composition as its subject. The receding verticals, strong horizontals, and diagonals both actual and implied reminded me of Tintoretto’s “Susanna and the Elders.” I’ve drawn and painted from this image many times. But during these months of isolation, Cora’s photographic presence speaks to me in a different way.

I never met Cora. According to family lore, she was not beloved by her relatives. I think I would have liked her. She smiles at her “familiar,” a crow that was said to have talked. Did she remove her apron and go fishing, or head out to a seaside campground and pitch a tent, as she did each summer for many years? No family allowed! Two years before this photograph was taken, the “Spanish” flu sent Cora and her husband Len to their bed, unable to reach out for help. Len died; too ill to move, Cora lay for several days beside Len’s body. Soon after, Cora sold her hilltop home and the peach orchard that surrounded it and, having lost her independence, moved into this small house with her daughter’s growing family.

This photo now hangs near my bed in the new old Salem home. Reputed to be eccentric, difficult, “other,” Cora was an outlier who lived in as independent a way as she could. Still attracted to the unidealized visuality of the image, I’m increasingly aware that Cora lived through an epidemic as devastating as our own and lost a life she thought she’d have. Now, unexpectedly, this outcome is possible for any of us.

Sectional view of the stacks under the Main Reading Room, 1911; New York Public Library Archives. postcard (image courtesy Marjorie Welish)

Marjorie Welish (Manhattan): In my bookcases are a few postcards of art that are changed from time to time. This image from the archives of the New York Public Library is, in one sense, mere information. It is a diagram of the structure that allows storage and retrieval of books and periodicals housed efficiently to become available for reading on call.

These functions are not to be taken for granted, in a pandemic or any other time. The archive is a memory of the information pertaining to knowledge and critical thought. If some of it is superseded, that in itself becomes a cause for a slowdown in the archive’s technology, in that we need to prove the plausibility of potential outcomes inherent in complex dynamical systems, rather than profess ignorance opportunistically, with avarice rationalized as value.

And so, if the image is a cross-section of knowledge in time, it is also an information technology of value in itself, perhaps all the more for being slower than we have become accustomed to. We Like or Dislike, to post our Likes and Dislikes as if these were knowledge. But slower and redundant technologies are the way for society to understand the interference patterns now occurring.

Somewhere within this archive organized for retrieval is an account of a walk through the woods by the chemist Carl Djerassi, who, by touching the waxy substance on the surface of a leaf, began the process that yielded a marketable natural antihistamine. This slower acquisition of knowledge exposes the consequences of acting in haste. And so too relaxing quarantines prematurely make for medical and social interference patterns such that tracking viral contacts becomes exponentially complicated.

Why do I keep my art stored away, to be unwrapped and viewed infrequently? So I never take the artwork for granted.

Philadelphia Wireman, title and date unknown, various found materials, 4 inches high (image courtesy David McDonald)

David McDonald (Culver City, California): Two pieces from my collection seem especially pertinent to our current situation: a sculpture by the Philadelphia Wireman and a drawing by Al Taylor.

The piece by the Wireman is small, like all his work — about four inches tall. It is made with wire, tabs, part of a spoon, a Christmas light, and more wire. No one knows who the Wireman was. About 1200 of these pieces were found in a Dumpster in Philadelphia in the early 1980s and eventually Fleisher/Ollman in Philly began to show them. No one knows the intention behind them, other than they’re put together with the detritus that the maker presumably had around or could afford to buy. The idea that someone made these pieces purely out of a need is immensely inspiring and profound in this time when we artists are making work just because that’s what we do and that’s why we got into this.

Al Taylor, “Pass the Peas” (1991), mixed media on paper, 11 x 9 inches (image courtesy David McDonald)

The second piece is a drawing by Al Taylor from 1991. I never knew Al, but I met his wife when I put work of his in a group show I curated in 2004. At the time Al had passed away and was little known and there wasn’t much energy around his work. His wife was so happy with the show and the way we presented the work that she allowed me to select a drawing. It’s a simple drawing, a couple of loops with seven small circles sitting on them. It’s from a series called Pass the Peas. The simplicity and directness of Al’s work has always spoken to me. The sculptures use everyday materials to create poetry, while the drawings are raw and incredibly subtle and beautiful.

In my own work during this pandemic I have tried to go back to basics, only putting into the work what is absolutely necessary and discarding the rest. It seems appropriate for a time when the trivia of decoration, indulgence, and “professionalism” have become distant. Only getting to the foundation matters, and both of these pieces show me the way there.

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