Gregory Amenoff
Paintings, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York
An Interview with Gregory Amenoff:
The Aesthetics of Excess, or, Anarchy, and Walking the Line Between the Beautiful and the Vulgar

By Debra Bricker Balken

The following interview took place at Gregory Amenoff’s studio in New York, December 18, 1999.

DEBRA BALKEN: Why don’t we begin by you defining the subject matter or visual content of your work? What are the images or motifs which appear in this new body of work?

GREGORY AMENOFF: This is the first group of paintings in which I have used two motifs: One very flat and abstract from a vocabulary that I have used in my work for a number of years which contrasts with a depictive, more traditionally representational space. These two worlds are either in opposition to each other, or hopefully coexist in a provocative manner. The most important elements to me are the nature of the light, the emotional atmosphere attached to the light, and the way light plays itself out in terms of color, be it a very muted color, or an extremely vibrant celebratory color. These are the basic visual terms. In terms of actual identifiable form, the paintings have land masses, horizons and often a representation of some body of water, such as a river or sea. But it is the contrasting moods and languages that really interest me, much more than the actual images. Moreover, in a painting such as Bouquet , these juxtapositions extend to the mood in which an extravagant floral form contrasts with the more subdued, somber, turbulent shapes and paint handling in the background.

The anomaly in the group is the tree painting, Stand, in which an overt symbol or figural representation of a tree stump appears. I began painting a group of images of branchless trees last year at this time. I called this series of small works the Stand paintings. They had stump-like forms which are abstract in many respects but clearly suggestive of the figure. The painting, Stand, is the only large painting I have made with that image.

DB: But in a generalized sense, this entire body of work could be referred to as landscape painting?

GA: Absolutely. But landscape painting per se is of very little interest to me. I have little interest in actual landscape. I am much more interested in art derived from landscape, landscape painting as an idea, than I am in landscape itself.

DB: Because these paintings are not tied to a specific site?

GA: Not at all. I think of these paintings in very concrete terms as objects, that is, they create a world I long for but that I cannot seem to find in life as easily as in art. These paintings represent the tension between the territories one is able to imagine and the territories one actually inhabits. The paintings are a bridge from what we know to what is unknown. The idea that you can create a compelling fiction in paint is a phenomenal one. Certainly artists like Albert Bierstadt and Martin Johnson Heade created magnificent fictions in their work: their paintings are compelling because the images are both familiar and also speak to notions of the miraculous and the ideal. All art does that to some extent, but landscape painting is particularly powerful to me because of the implied sense of a figure longing for some sort of union with that which is pictured. This moment of looking out at the world is, to my mind, one of the most primary human experiences. Landscape paintings themselves serve as a stand-in for the figure.

DB: A stand-in for the figure in which way?

GA: Because landscape generally has a fixed point of view, there is clearly a reference to an observer experiencing this space, whether it is the artist or the viewer. In that way, landscape becomes an extension of consciousness of the observer. It becomes a metaphor for the separation between the exterior and the interior, which is another expression of the duality in the sorts of form approaches that I mentioned earlier.

DB: And, I suppose as a literal device to anthropomorphize some of these shapes.

GA: Certainly in the Stand paintings the tree-like forms are probably some king of substitute for myself. In many of the other paintings though, I don’t think of the anthropomorphic shapes as references to myself, at least when I am painting them. I have always loved the use of the tree in the work of Casper David Friedrich and its equation with spiritual concerns. The idea that nature can embody the spiritual is remarkable. To a certain extent this new body of work touches on some of these themes.

DB: As well as on the Gothic overtones of Friedrich’s work?

GA: Yes. The Gothic, the excessive light, the symbolic presence of the Trinity. When I saw Friedrich’s paintings in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, I was astonished by their beauty. While I had known them through reproduction since I was young, I was stunned by their romantic character.

DB: It is interesting that you invoke Friedrich because I had always seen your work, at least up until this moment in time, as drawing on the tradition of nineteenth-century American landscape painting and it’s lingering impact on modernists such as Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley.

GA: There is a direct line from Friedrich to Thomas Cole and then to Frederick Church, Bierstadt, and the Luminists which I believe moves on to Ryder, Dove and Hartley. Obviously, my work has always been associated with Dove and Hartleyand there are still echoes of Hartley in these new paintings, particularly in the direct manner of handling paint, but I think the ideas are actually, at this point, more involved with nineteenth — century painters such as Friedrich and the American Luminists such as Heade, Fitz Hugh Lane and John Kensett. They are of enormous interest to me. Although sometimes, I think that it is dangerous for me to think about the nineteenth century too much because it is a very comfortable territory for me. Were I to live again, I would want to live in America in that period. This body of work to a certain extent emanates from American nineteenth-century painting and the tradition that begins with Friedrich and his elevated sense of light and symbology. But I hope that it is also colored by a deeper psychological sense. In particular, the type of turbulent psychology found in Heade’sApproaching Storm series. The notion that landscape painting could represent social and political meaning, as this series by Heade does, is an amazing idea to me.

DB: One of the extraordinary features of American nineteenth-century painting, as it is differentiated from concurrent developments in Europe, is the emphasis the American artist placed on imbuing art with meaning, whether it takes the form of social, political or religious content. And while this is , or course, a generalized statement, which acknowledges numerous exceptions, the overall thrust of mainstream European art has been, at least from the late nineteenth century onward, toward a preoccupation with pure form. That is, purging art of context and non-visual connotation or meaning.

GA: That’s interesting. I certainly have always thought about this kind of break or difference in terms of early twentieth-century American art. Specifically, in terms of Dove and Hartley, in which there are no ideologies and also no formal "isms." Hartley played with Cubism and other contemporary movements, but his greater paintings are, I fell, the late figure paintings of fishermen, the coast of Main and the wonderful painting of Abraham Lincoln at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They are paintings that have no ideological subtext associated with them, but they are powerful expressions of a particular view of nature and the human gaze.

DB: Exactly. They do not exist in relationship to theory.

GA: Not at all. I have to say, like it or not, that is also who I am. It hasn’t been a fashionable position, but I am first and foremost interested in visual information: the potential for content and the transmission of states of mind and emotion in art. But not as an illustration of an a priori theory.

To come back to your point about the differences between American and European art in the nineteenth century, it is wonderful to me that a connection exists between the Hudson River School painters, the Luminists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Abraham Lincoln. A unity exists in terms of a world view. It is the best aspect of the American character. It is a bit operatic in the work of the Hudson River School, but all of those figures have a sense of spiritual elevation, transparency and magic.

DB: It is interesting that this tradition radically changes in 1945 in this country, where studio practice and theory co-exist, and when art becomes framed and discussed almost exclusively, at least by the most visible critics, by its formal properties.

GA: I don’t identify myself with any of the artists associated with the New York School. I admire them. They are wonderful painters. They give someone like myself permission to pursue expression with absolute abandon, but that’s about it. My work over the past twenty years has moved away from formal arrangements to what I hope is a complex emotional and metaphorical position. I made a big break in my work in the late 1980s, when I became disenchanted with the way in which I organized form–a particularly organic vocabulary of form–and reconfigured my entire sensibility for a project that I did for a church in Germany–an altarpiece and vestments. That break was very significant. This project produced a radically new sort of content in my work. When the project was completed in 1991, and I returned to oil painting, I had a stronger sense of the issues that I wanted to deal with. These had nothing to do with Christian ideology but more with a realization that my painting had to become less formally driven and have more of a metaphorical presence.

DB: More of a transcendence, then?

GA: I hope so. A transcendence that is best described by starting with something opaque, that extends itself into something transparent. It’s a hopeless task, but I try to attain this condition through the integration of both thick and thin physical passages in my painting, as well as utilizing both familiar and unfamiliar images. When I allude to transcendence, it is more from a position of longing or desire, than a place that I can actually describe. When you are working, as I do, between abstraction and figuration, it is difficult to know at which point you are communicating this condition or state.

DB: At which point you are generating meaning?

GA: Yes. If the forms in my painting become too arbitrary, then they become too insular. They lose the ability to speak. To me, it is about providing the opportunity for the viewer to have an experience, without dwelling too much on the particular aspects of the paintings. To allow the viewer to slip in between the categories of form and style. I should also say that I am interested in a certain sort of subversion as well.

DB: In which way?

GA: Not in an angry sense, but through beauty. I think beauty has as much power to subvert the status quo as other more aggressive art strategies. Art should knock the viewer off-center. If it is only reassuring, then art becomes the same as a television program, a sit-com.

DB: Or decoration?

GA: Exactly. But even decoration can be elevated to a breathtaking level that can be subversive as well. It is the prosaic that is the enemy. If the decorative lapses into the prosaic, one may as well be making refrigerator magnets.

DB: It is interesting that you use the word beauty, because beauty has made something of a comeback in the past few years. Or, at least, has been reassessed as a subject. Ten years ago, beauty was a suspect, if not spurned, strategy. Now there are exhibitions devoted to the idea, such as Regarding Beauty which appeared at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden this past fall and books, such as Elaine’s Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just and Bill Beckley’s anthology, Uncontrollable Beauty: Towards A New Aesthetic. What do you think about the re-engagement of beauty as a subject in terms of your own work?

GA: Obviously, the kind of conventional beauty which we just talked about is of little interest to me. But I would hope that beauty could hold its own again. Beauty has been terrible discredited in the past twenty years in art, and if it is making a comeback, I am very happy about that. It seems that we have recently experienced an ungenerous period in art. And, generosity is a very compelling idea to me. If an art object can be effusive, excessive or generous, that seems to be a great position but, again as you have said, that is a position that has been left out of the discussion on art for some time. I like the idea that art can function as an offering in some way without becoming superficial or too simple. The notion of beauty does not necessarily exclude the possibility for the problematic.

DB: But how do beauty and generosity become equations? Or do they?

GA: Generosity, I suppose, is a broader idea than beauty. By way of answering your question, in reference to the nineteenth century, I think, that there is in that era a commitment to both social justice and beauty. In someone like Whitman, as well as Lincoln, along with painters who worked after 1850, you find these ideas wedded. But the problem comes in some works by the Hudson River School artists, in which notions of justice are tied to notions of conquest. Perhaps, the works by the Luminists, which are much more intimate in scale, and linked to both turmoil and transcendence, you find those equations. Maybe we are at a point where these ideas can be re-addressed. Perhaps there is a longing in our culture for the re-acceptance of beauty. I would also align it however with this idea of generosity, of the potential for the art object to be a type of offering. It seems to me that we have seen a general attitude in the art world in the past thirty years that has been largely ungenerous, holding art in a position of restraint and removal.

DB: Are you referring to Neo-Conceptual developments?

GA: Certain Neo-Conceptual positions. In some of these artistic positions there has been a sense of smugness, self-satisfaction and what is I believe a very academic sort of elitism.

I am not making a case for pandering to an audience. I think few artists do that in their work. Nor do I. However the preoccupation artists have had with theory separated certain parts of the art world from what is a surprisingly broad audience. The art world lost a significant part of its constituency and hence almost all of its political credibility . . . witness the destruction of huge parts of the NEA. What has been more damaging is the loss of power of artists within the art world.

If artists are in the position of illustrating theory, then they have lost the anarchy of the studio. The position of anarchy is to extend ideas which are subversive to the center of social thought. Our job is to invent. When we are illustrating, we are not inventing. When we are pandering to extant theory, we are not inventing. It seems to me legitimate art history and art criticism have always extended or drawn upon what came out of the studio. When artists begin to draw on what comes out of criticism and theory, the artist loses all power. That is a tragic state of affairs. To a certain extent, artists have been willing to abdicate their central role in culture. A historically entrenched notion such as beauty has been discarded as a legitimate idea because of artists’ fear of the response from some segments of the critical community. It is up to us to claim the central territory every day in our studios. The primacy of the artist in the studio, whether he/she works alone, or in pairs, is a very important idea for me. I think the responsibility of the artist is to wreak havoc on culture, whether it is with work that is wildly beautiful, wildly challenging, or even insulting to the larger culture.

DB: But how specifically do you feel you pull this off through your work? How is your work subversive?

GA: Well, I aim to subvert the center position that most people expect of art. That is, the position of stability that is not necessarily complex or challenging. If an art object sets itself up to subvert either beauty or social comment, then the prosaic position that defines normal, secular, life, has been altered. I feel all art is political. A painting by Matisse can be as political as Picasso’s Guernica.

DB: So all art is innately political by virtue of the subversive stance of the artist?

GA: Yes, with the exception of the work of illustrators. Illustration is by nature reassuring and contained. That’s why it isn’t art: it doesn’t extend consciousness beyond a fixed expectation. There has been a lot of illustration that poses as art. I am interested in transmitting a level of beauty and anxiety in paintings that will strike similar but perhaps uncomfortable chords in the viewer. It’s an old idea.

DB: But isn’t this also a bi of a rarified, or privileged idea that part of the art community has hidden behind for too long?

GA: I certainly understand what you mean. But I think it is a more classical position, the one in which art has traditionally functioned in western culture. It explains the way in which art attains resonance. The entire process of finishing a painting, for me, is centered around insuring that the painting is transmitting itself in as broad a way as possible. That’s where this notion of generosity comes in.

DB: Hence, the romantic imagery of your work?

GA: Yes, one of the issues I have been thinking about recently is excess. In the context of the images I paint, I have been trying to move into places that would be considered excessive, sentimental, perhaps overly romantic. I am trying to extend as far as I can, in as rich a way as possible, either the metaphor, or the allegory, or the representation that I happen to be utilizing. So the flat area become flatter, the floral arrangement becomes almost saccharine, the form becomes literally thick and physical or the light becomes literally transparent. As far as I can go.

DB: This word generosity that you are using must also be a euphemism for affirmation–that is, the affirmation of the act of painting.

GA: Absolutely. In general, a big enemy of painting is ambivalence and insecurity. But doubt is always implicit in that which you have completed. It is a constant battle between affirmation and doubt. That which you which you become attached to in the process of painting, is that which becomes a barrier to its completion. The notion of risk and doubt is implicit in every action one takes in a painting. That’s where faith comes in. I have to sustain a certain faith that a certain image is believable and legitimate . . . like a bouquet of flowers or a tree stump.

DB: There is a high degree of craft in this new body of work, as there has been throughout your paintings. They are beautifully made.

GA: To a certain extent craft is implicit in this idea of beauty. The Ingres show now on at the Metropolitan Museum is a powerful remind of craft. Ingres takes craft almost to the level of science fiction . . . the beauty is linked to that craft forever.

DB: Do you think this current reassessment of beauty, and by association craft, topples the perception that painting experienced some form of death in the seventies and eighties?

GA: The continuous screaming regarding "the death of painting" in the past thirty years seems to ignore the fact that the bulk of artists were always working in that medium and attempting to extend, change, move and define new positions. As artists now take back territory that I think was given away, a reaffirmation of beauty and craft can take place. Not simply formal beauty, but an elevated notion of beauty–work that hints at the miraculous. This may sound like an extreme position but it seems to me that art should be as ferociously beautiful and powerful as possible. I hope that nothing I have in this body of work is simply tasteful. I want an excess that walks a line between the vulgar and the beautiful.

© Gregory Amenoff - 2012 - All rights reserved.