Gregory Amenoff
DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park
Lincoln, Massachusetts
An Interview with Gregory Amenoff:
Works on Paper, 1975-1992

By Rachel Rosenfield Lafo

Gregory Amenoff is passionately committed to painting and drawing as a form of communication. He responds intuitively to stimuli in the natural world of landscape and atmosphere and the inner worlds of emotion and spirit, blending his perceptions into organically abstract images. In his work the outer world is internalized; the inner world is manifested in visible form.

His art exerts an emotional tug on our senses; forms swirl and explode, colors can be bright and expressive or restrained and cool. This exhibition enables one to see how his work started out in the mid 1970s more minimal and structured; geometric lines and angles stretch horizontally across the picture surface, suggesting landscapes and energy fields. Colors were also cool–blue, gray, black, green, and brown. But before long, Amenoff’s forms began to solidify, curve irregularly in an embodiment of the rhythm of nature’s forces, and burst out in exuberant shapes and colors. In recent years, his images, (whether they be thorns, spines, vessels, or plant shapes), have become more centered, and have a decidedly figurative reference.

Amenoff’s artistic career began in Boston, where he lived for eight years, and his work has been associated with the gestural branch of abstraction that played an imporant role in the history of Boston art.1 Amenoff’s work was included in DeCordova’s 1986 exhibition,Expressionism in Boston: 1945-1985, and in other group exhibitions in the area, but until now there has been no exhibition examining the evolution of his work over an extended period.

Widely and deservedly known for his paintings, the artist has also produced an incredible body of works on paper that is much less known. These are important, not only as works in their own right, but because they are intricately connected with the paintings, serving some times as inspiration and other times as a means for continued exploration. There is an intimacy to works on paper that is not available in the paintings. Also the range of media within the works on paper is extraordinary–ink drawings which shimmer with luminosity, mixed media pieces which offer tactile surfaces in their combination of pastel, oil stick, and ink, and woodcuts whose many colors and patterns are among the most vibrant of the artist’s works.

In this interview, conducted with Gregory Amenoff from 1990 to 1992 in his New York City and New Mexico studios, he responds to questions about his imagery, the influences on his art, and his works on paper as they relate to his paintings.

Rachel Rosenfield Lafo:

You are originally from the mid-West but have lived on the east coast since 1971. I know you also spend time in New Mexico. How does the place where you live affect the imagery that appears in your art?

Gregory Amenoff:

I lived in Boston from 1971 to 1979 and then I moved to New York City. I would say that both places are important only insofar as they are eastern urban areas which can push one’s work to a clear position in response to the great art made and available there. But more important than where I live is where I travel.

Why did you move to Boston?

It was a place where I thought I could live. I had been living in Wisconsin teaching school and then I came east and lived in New Hampshire and Vermont for a summer and then I had to go somewhere. Boston was not overwhelming. I liked the sense of history of the city. The first three months I lived in Cambridge and had a studio in east Cambridge above a place that was used to kill chickens. then, in December 1971, I moved my studio to a huge factory in Jamaica Plain. I became involved in the art scene by joining the Boston Visual Artists Union, which was very active at that time.

How did you support yourself while making art?

I had a sign business and I did moving for people. Then I worked at a typesetting house for a little over a year. I quit my day job at the beginning of 1975 and I’ve never gone back. I started showing my work at the Nielsen Gallery in Boston. I left Boston for New York in 1979.

Why did you move?

I was faced with a difficult real estate situation. By then I was living on South Street and it was either buy, move or find another loft. I was showing my work and felt a little more confident about moving to New York City.

New Mexico now strongly influences you and your art. When did you start going there?

In 1983 on a regular basis. It had all the right ingredients. I liked the dryness, the dust, the wide open country. I didn’t even really know then about the cultural elements that I now like. By that I mean the mix of peoples–the Spanish element which is very attractive to me. What I did know about was my fundamental response to the landscape, weather, and atmosphere of the place–the strength of a very muscular environment. It’s very severe. It also has a delicate side, but the severity suited me.

How did your experience of New Mexico enter into your work?

The natural surroundings are so powerful there that it’s hard not to be rhapsodic on some level with one’s work. What interested me was the dry environment infused with a strong spiritual sense. Then, eventually the cultural elements that are very strong in that part of the world took root in my sensibility and entered my work with the drawing El Santuario de Chimayo (p.22). The idea seemed to come from nowhere and I did the work in two hours.

What is the Santuario de Chimayo?

Chimayo is a village north of Santa Fe where there is a small church that has soil with purported healing powers. People journey from afar to visit there. I had been going out to New Mexico for three or four years when I did the drawing which I consider to be pivotal in my work. When I did that work on paper I finally understood where I wanted to go. It had much to do with nature and how that landscape is informed and cross-fertilized with the art and the spiritual life of Catholicism. The sun is beating down on you, the building is white, adobe, inside the church is cool, portrayals of great suffering on the wall, a lot of use of black, yet a kind of decorous beauty surrounds the imagery. El Santuario de Chimayo was done in 1985. After three years of letting the ideas percolate, I did a painting and several drawings based on the image, and then I made it the focus of a body of drawings I did in 1988. Those drawings directly led into changing my material and working on a different scale.

I know you identify very strongly with your mid-Western upbringing and your view on the land as an embodiment of spiritual and cultural values.

All one can operate form is one’s sense of identity–the identity can be based on culture, race, gender or religion. One of the ways you locate yourself is by geography which is your most externalized sense of yourself. You are it and it is you. All I have left when everything else is removed is a fundamental reality of being mid-Western and having a sense of what it is to see an expanse of cornfield. I am descended from farming people in Sweden. My father was from the middle of Illinois and my mother was originally from outside Chicago. I was born in St. Charles, Illinois, and my father ran the newspaper in the small, nearby farming town of Elburn. That rural reality is the one I return to. It’s very inescapably American. In essence, what I am moved by is art that grows out of some fundamental American sense of land, land as a sentient force. I don’t think that is a European idea. I think it is an American idea.

In an earlier interview, you said, "I want to go through the window opened by the American modernists–Ryder, Hartley, Dove, etc."2 Can you elaborate on what that window represents for you?

I believe that there is a strong tradition in American art that is largely overlooked. It is alluded to but I don’t’ think it is even given enough attention in art history. It is exemplified by people like Charles Burchfield, Milton Avery, and the great early Modernists like Marsden hartley, Arthur Dove, and John Marin (whose works never did interest me) and Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Burchfield responded to a landscape–to the most ordinary mid-Western or upper New York landscape–to a presence that can only be described as an unseen presence, a sentience, whether it’s animism, or pantheism, or whatever you want to label it. It has real strong roots in New England transcendentalism. It has to do with a reductive American sense that interests me and with an essential experience of place, landscape, and elements. there is something direct, innocent, and very muscular–very straight-forward. There are no apologies for it–it’s very blunt and the bluntness is what interests me–even if it’s blunt in a sophisticated sort of fragile way. I’m not interested in writing myself into history–that’s for somebody else to decide–but I can tell you I know that what I have to offer is somewhere in that territory, and the drawing and the prints and paintings are about looking at something and responding to it internally. It’s about the presence beyond the landscape which also has a strong psychological component, whether it’s a sense of belonging or a sense of isolation.

Can you tell us about other artists whose work inspires you?

I’ve been interested in the late nineteenth century Belgian, French, and Scandinavian symbolists. From Redon to a lot of the more obscure symbolists in Belgium like Spillaert and Khnopff. Their work has a kind of poetic, spiritual presence. It’s a mysterious presence. It’s not horrific usually, although it has elements of that. It’s an intangible poetic sense that’s very ethereal. The Symbolists made incredible drawings. Again, drawing is a perfect way to record a state of mind.

I know that you collect work by self-taught artists. Why does that work appeal to you and has it informed your art?

One of the things about self-taught artists or outsider artists is that very often the work is drawing. It is a direct kind of expression and the directness and availability of materials makes it very appealing to people who do not have an art education, they just have an awareness that they can pick up a pencil and do something. I began buying outsider art in 1980. As it happens, most of the pieces I collect are drawings, by artists such as Martin Ramies, Joseph Yoakum, and Bill Traylor. Having this collection and building it slowly have become a very important part of my life. It is a constant reminder of a most fundamental human motivation–to make an image. And that’s one of the reasons I have outsider art around me. It reminds me of the most direct and charge moment of making something.

How would you characterize the relationship between your works on paper and paintings?

The drawings can be made in advance of, contemporaneous with, and after painted images. Generally speaking, I do not work on a body of drawings and paintings at the same time. I make studio sketches; I make many of those. To make what I would call a serious, developed drawing that is dimensional and not just a sketch, I have to concentrate on the materials, on the paper, on the scale. It’s very hard for me to work back and forth.

I rely on the materials of drawing to lead me on, to inspire me. When I get involved in drawing, that’s all I want to do. It becomes very engaging. The process is especially satisfying because it’s an expression that lasts an hour, a day, or two days. It’s a very concentrated form of expression. Painting is more reflective and the time frame is longer. Drawing is a more intense process.

When did you begin to consider your drawings as works of art in their own right?

Some of the first significant works on paper that I did were probably in 1974 and 1975, particularly in 1975 when I began to use ink. those little ink drawings were so loose and free, compared to the paintings. The paintings at the time were waxed, they were heavy; they were like elephant skin. But in the drawings, such as Neva (p.17), I was working in washes of ink and letting the linear elements and not the surface lead me. That was the first time I really felt that I was drawing. At that time, I think the drawings were greatly in advance of the paintings. They led into pastels which were slightly more expressive. I then worked with oil on paper which was fresher, looser, again less heavy than the painting; I was freer. That period of oil on paper lasted probably from 1976 right into the very early 1980s. At that point, the oil on paper works stopped fulfilling a function for me because I found that the expressive potential of the paint was much more successfully translated on a larger scale.

Then around 1981 I started to work with oil stick, pastel and ink together. these works on paper, such as The Casting Out #2 (p. 19), were constructed more like a painting in many ways. They were layered. They were altered. They were scraped and then they were worked into again. I would use the pastel as a painting material; for instance, I would use solvents and so forth to cut it. In works on paper from 1981 to 1983 the surface became much more opaque. I think these works had more impact because I was working with a lot of black and the value shifts were stronger; they were more graphic.

You began to make prints in 1983 and since that time you have created woodcuts, monotypes, and etchings. Why did you begin to experiment with woodcuts?

I was attracted to that technique because the physical quality of making the woodcut seemed appealing to me. Yet I had no training in woodcuts, I’d never worked with a printer. In my work from 1983 and 1984 the surface was no longer all-over, areas were starting to break up, and that’s what a graphic sensibility is. It’s delineating areas through some graphic means of marking, whether it’s cross-hatching in an etching or whether it’s a round gouge out of an area as opposed to a thin score in a block.

Now when I started to make woodcuts, I realized immediately that it was very complex and difficult to understand how to translate what was a gestural kinesthetic process into a visual, graphic process. I’m very happy with the first print that I did, In the Fifth Season, which I made with Chip Elwell, a master woodcut printer who was known for very luscious surfaces. The print largely depends on black, the images consist of tinted shades of black and graphic elements cut in. I began to understand what was graphic about my work, and what wasn’t, and what was important about the gesture and how I could translate the gesture into a stiff graphic medium. I found that the process–which I thought I would be attracted to–didn’t matter. I care about the image and the way the image sits on the paper, but find that the process of making a woodcut–in terms of carving the block–is quite secondary.

Did you experience with woodcuts influence your painting style?

As I pushed the graphic element in woodcuts such as Chamber (p.21), I started to understand more about paper and light, and the luminous potential that I had lost touch with in the heavier, darker works on paper. Many of the works on paper had a lot of light, but it was a more metaphorical light, not a real light such as one gets from a watercolor, which is actual luminosity coming from the paper. Thinking about the other prints, particularly the monotypes, made me realize that the power that I was after in my painting was not ultimately dependent upon the material. The prints had a very strong influence on moving the paintings in a different direction.

Do you think the prints made your paintings more graphic?

I think so. Oddly enough that doesn’t necessarily mean flatter. I think that two things happened: the graphic element made the forms clearer and less muddled in the paintings and the spaces became more exaggerated or stronger or deeper. Then the monotypes that I did would feed back into the woodcuts. Monotypes have become a form of drawing for me because the process is direct and there is a lot of pressure to stay fresh and clear. It is a germinal way of making an image that reinspires me.

What role does color play in your work?

In the paintings, monotypes, and woodcuts, color is a critical ingredient and is the primary indicator of atmosphere and light. In drawing and lithography, I think much more in terms of value, largely because of the nature of the materials used. Although there are certainly exceptions, color plays a secondary role in those media.

In 1988 your paintings changed. Instead of using rather heavy oil paint you began to use a thinner medium–rabbit-skin glue and pure pigment. did your works on paper lead to this change?

Over the last twenty years my paintings have become less and less rigid in terms of how I make an image. And my painting now is much less heavy. So the drawing has been very important in helping me loosen up and understand that an image can be freed from that tablet feeling. My earlier work was very table-like, slate-like, stone-like, almost carved into the surface. All along, the works on paper (the ink and the oil on paper) led me into a much more expressive mode. The painting I do now is more spontaneous, less worked, more luminous; the ground is present. The gessoed surface was never present in my older paintings. These paintings have much more to do with works on paper, with drawing and printmaking, than they have to do with toiling with massive amounts of material and pushing around "earth" and "clay."

When you shifted form oil on canvas to glue distemper on panel was there a corresponding shift in the medium you were using for your works on paper?

When I first made the shift, I started working with watercolor which I hadn’t done in years. For me drawing has very much to do with responding in the art supply store to particular materials at a particular time. With drawing materials for works on paper, the range is extraordinary, from oil stick to watercolor to pastel to pencil to charcoal. Then I get to work and really try to see how a particular material responds to the state of mind I’m in and the imagery that I’m working with.

Why do you think your paintings have received more attention than your works on paper?

Because the particular kind of painting that received some attention was where the paint was up front and center, because it was juicy and thick and physical. It drew all the attention to itself as the primary focus. Had I painted in a different way, in which the image would have been less joined with the physical quality of the paint, people would have more easily associated works on paper with the paintings.

Do you consider yourself to be an abstract artist?

I do not consider myself to be an artist whose work is particularly abstract. I treat images the way I suppose a figurative painter would treat images. I think about subjects and I think about figure and context for figure. I don’t see distinctions between means of representation. The issues are the same for an abstract painter and a figurative painter.

One of the reasons why in 1988 I had to rethink the amount of paint that I had on a canvas and why I actually started thinning out the painting, was because the surface was agitated so much it became a distraction from the subject of the painting. I certainly was interested in activity and energy and forces colliding. But I always thought about things in a concrete sense the way one thinks of a landscape as being made up of trees and rocks. That’s the way I intended the paintings to be, but very often the surface energies overwhelmed the subject. I believe that around 1984 or 1985, images started to separate out more, and they separated out more and more until I really began to isolate things in the late 1980s. For instance, the thorn image which I have used a lot became isolated. It was also the unifying physical characteristic; the painting was built around it, and it remained an image in the prints, paintings, and drawings of those years.

In 1991 you worked on two series of works on paper and paintings, the Vessel andTropia series. How did these evolve?

Vessels are great metaphors of repositories for our spiritual life and for our bodies. They are even somewhat hackneyed. Drawing the vessels over and over again eventually evolved into the Tropia form. It was one form that had to do with the way the lines connected. I continued drawing that way until all traces of the vessel were gone.

What does the term Tropia refer to?

Tropia refers to the tendency of living things to attract and grow towards external stimuli in a particular way, like heliotropism or geotropism. Heliotropism is when plants grow toward the sun. Geotropism is when roots grow toward the earth. It’s a very broad organic concept that I use as a metaphor for the condition of longing. In the series, I’ve been working with what happens when I add ink to paper if the paper is wet, if the paper is dry, when I control a mark, and when I lose control of a mark. Some of these etchings are also like that; they’re really just about making marks and seeing what energies emerge.

In 1989, you received a commission from Father Friedhelm Mennekes of St. Peter’s Church in Cologne, Germany to paint an altarpiece and create vestments to be used during services. That was an ambitious project which introduced certain images form Christian iconography into your work. Your art of course had always been about the spiritual qualities inherent in nature. How did the Church project further influence your work?

The project was an opportunity to communicate with the greatest tradition in Western art. I had already become interested in the kind of intense power an image can communicate, and had experienced that intensity in Spanish paintings, in Mexico, and in churches that I visited in New Mexico. Working on the project made me realize that painting is my spiritual life. Making art involves the great issue of a spiritual life: faith. It’s interwoven completely into the process. You can make an image and it can be a mirror for you, for your own limited sense of who you are, or it can be a mirror for yourself as representative of your society and your culture. Painting is a way of holding up a mirror to myself in terms of who I am at any particular time, how deep my thinking is, how rich my thinking is, and what sources I draw on as a human being. For me, painting itself is a religious act or a metaphor for a religious act. To make an object, to create anything, is on some broad and deep level the ultimate life-affirming act.

  1. Pamela Edwards Allara, "The Humanist Vision: Expressionist Art in Boston, 1945-1985," Expressionism in Boston: 1945-1985, DeCordova Museum (Lincoln, MA, 1986), 38-39.
  2. See interview with Lilly Wei in "Talking Abstract," Art in America (July 1987): 87.

© Gregory Amenoff - 2012 - All rights reserved.