Gregory Amenoff
The Fabric Workshop, Philadelphia, USA
Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York, USA
Kunst-Station Sankt Peter, Cologne, Germany
Galerie Marie-Louise Wirth, Zurich, Switzerland
An Interview with Gregory Amenoff:
Paintings for a Church

By Friedhelm Mennekes

I look at your paintings. I see some forms, for instance trees, and I see colours. Tell me: on the one hand it is only painting, it is art for art, and on the other hand I would say it is more or less expressive work with meaningful implications. What do you prefer, is it art for art’s sake combined with meaning?

Gregory Amenoff: I have no interest in art for art’s sake. I am interested in joining painting with life and therefore experience. The formal issues of painting are necessary in order to make a good painting, and my first responsibility as a painter is to make a good painting. But that is only a vehicle; only a means to an end. I want to say something specific and strong which relates to aspects of our experience.

Friedhelm Mennekes: So you are looking for a connection between art and life? Art and the human, or art for art’s sake?

G.A.: Art for art’s sake has no interest to me. I don’t see any reason to do that. Some artists like the minimalists have worked in that way. That is fine for them. For me it is the engagement with the issues of living that makes painting interesting.

F.M.: When I look at your paintings I feel that there are powers, aggressions which strike me. In other words, the paintings are filled with energy. Would you say that this is what you are dealing with?

G.A.: My work in general has dealt for years with forces and different energies. In earlier times I have dealt with more outer forces of nature and more powerful notions of the natural world. Over the past two years my interest and concern have been with cultural and spiritual forces. These paintings, the altar piece and the smaller paintings in the exhibition all demonstrate this. The focus is on more internalized forces.

F.M.: For several years you have used in your paintings an element with a strong religious connotation: the thorns.

G.A.: I have used an image which is common in certain kinds of religious art (The Thorn, The Espina in Spanish). It has a great interest for me, because it has a very beautiful form which also implies a kind of violence. And it strikes me that the whole subject of the crucification includes both those elements.

F.M.: Is that valid also for other forms, e.g. the boat?

G.A.: yes, the boat has a certain significance in Christian imagery. Like the thorn it is tied to the life of Christ. They seem to me to be perfect metaphors. I am also attracted to these forms as abstract shapes.

F.M.: Are not there some connections between the form of the thorn and the form of the boat? To me the boat is a bigger thorn.

G.A.: I think that they are quite different as metaphors. First of all I like the shapes of the boat. Also, the ribs of the boat form seem to me to be perfectly matched to the human body. The structure of a human being, specifically the ribs, seem to me related to the structure of the wooden boat. That is also a form which implies motion and movement from one place to another. And that place does not have to be physical, it can be spiritual.

F.M.: Whereas the thorn is a more static element.

G.A.: That is true. The thorn in this sense is more of a figurative elements but the boat is both: a means of a figurative element to <<travel>> - a vessel, of movement on its own.

F.M.: In your paintings, the boat often contains a curious form, especially in the altar piece. It makes me think of a sheaf of corn, a symbol of life.

G.A.: To me that symbol has to do with energy. With movement. Perhaps with a kind of spirit that produces movement. I think of it as a sheaf of grain — a cluster of energy.

F.M.: In the boat of the altar piece I count seven elements. Is there any relation to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit? Were you aware of this theological tradition?

G.A.: No, not at all. But what you tell me is very interesting. I worked on that form over and over. I repeated and changed it. I made it bigger, smaller till I had the right lightness and still the right power and so the seven just <<happened>>.

F.M.: The main work in the exhibition you are holding here in Cologne is the alter triptych for the Gothic space. The three parts impress me a lot. You are really at home in your art, you did not change anything, and on the other hand you dealt with living energies, current forces from one level to another.

G.A. That is true for the altar piece. The reason why this project has been so interesting for me is because it has been an opportunity to take my own sensibility and apply it to a classical theme. It deals with one of the great themes of art, if not the greatest theme of all art in the West. I took the job of relating to the theme of the altar piece very, very seriously.

F.M.: Let us look at the different paintings.

G.A.: The left panel with the thorns shows the suffering and trouble related to the self of the sufferer. The central panel has to be the Crucifixion.

F.M.: In the middle of the cross is something like a current.

G.A.: You are exactly right. It is like a current. You used a good word. It is a stream of energy in that moment of great suffering, the most tragic moment in Christian history. It is also the moment of greatest hope, because it is the moment of dramatic change, and for me the energy, in the center was very important.

F.M.: Did you have these ideas from the very beginning of your work?

G.A.: First I painted the shape and then I thought of the transformation and that energy rises to the top; in the third panel that energy has changed and found a home in the boat. So that is the transformation. I painted it first and then realized what I had done.

F.M.: When you realized what had happened you followed the theme.

G.A.: Right, the thorns, the spears had been stabbed at Christ. Also they represent the suffering of the earth coming into being and reminding the Crucified of the pain of our planet. I started with the composition of that cross-like form a year and a half ago, but when I saw the Grunewald Altar piece in Colmar in December I really knew that I had to make the composition off centre.

F.M.: In the middle panel there is a round form, and down there is a blue form. It reminds me of the earth as a planet.

G.A.: In the space around the form of the Cross I thought of the storm, that kind of stormy power of the Old Testament. The storm is violent, it is brown and red around the Cross. It is very expressionistic. The blue is almost like water. But what is more important are the green thorns. They are stabbing towards the Cross in the centre of the painting. They are moving towards the Cross. There is no going backwards. The peaceful world is gone. You must move to another world.

F.M.: When I look at the painting above the altar and at the other paintings which we will hang in the church, then they seem to me like commentaries of the center.

G.A.: Yes. The paintings relate to the altar piece thematically in terms of the issues. I don’t think of them as specifically Christian or religious. The altar piece is all involved with that kind of thinking. Those Christian issues often are general issues. I don’t see the Crucifixion as a necessarily Christian event. It is a metaphor for all kinds of transformation. I don’t think of it in a narrow way, I think of it in a broader sense.

F.M.: Francis Bacon also does it in quite the same way: he sees it in terms of the highest form to speak about or to deal with human life.

G.A.: Exactly. I am an abstract painter and I want to keep the level of abstraction as high as possible. That is what makes images powerful form. It would have been much harder for me if I had been a realist painter to make these paintings, because the historical images are too strong. I wanted to broaden the theme.

F.M.: And that is why all the other paintings can be related to that theme.

G.A.: Yes, the smaller paintings related a lot to that form and even touch issues of the classical forms of the stations of the Cross, to some degree. I did not assign or need to assign specific stations. I want to keep them open in terms of interpretations. I used that structure, the wooden beams, the scaffold again as a metaphor, also as a formal device, and strong structure in the painting and as another element working within the painting. In many cases each one of those paintings — I can tell you each one has a specific feeling; some are open, landscapes, more of a landscape feeling, some are figurative. There is one painting which is very close to the Veil of Veronica. It is a painting within the painting. I love that also. — In Spanish paintings and in Mexican Christian paintings the Veil of Verona is a very popular image. I collect retables with that theme, so I did one painting which is very specific but is also a metaphor for many other things.

F.M.: This is the first time you have held an exhibition in a church. Can you tell me about some of your impressions, of your feelings?

G.A.: Oh yes. It is the first time I have ever exhibited anything in a church. I think it came at a perfect time for me because I was thinking about many of these issues with my work. Earlier I was dealing with the material of things, the material of nature and the power of nature. Three years ago I moved my work into a much lighter transparent style. And my medium changed. When that happened, the issues in the paintings became more to do with light and space. So the work for the church is perfect for me. I am excited about it because the great paintings that we think of historically deal with the themes that I have tried to deal with as an abstract painter. I don’t know if I have succeded, we will see. I take my job very seriously. For an abstract painter it is a great challenge to apply one’s work to a historical tradition that is all figurative.

F.M.: Let me ask you about the vestments. The most important artist who did vestments this century was Henry Matisse. Is it good for your art to do what we can call applied work?

G.A.: The vestments have been a pleasure. I had a wonderful team of people at the <<Fabric Workshop>>. You gave me the shape and you gave me the colour range, and then I was free; within that context I was free.

F.M.: I asked you to create vestments for particular services like Good Friday and Easter Sunday, that is vestments for the Passion and Death celebration and for the Resurrection service.

G.A.: It was a great challenge to think of the vestments as an atmosphere, as clothing that also creates a tone for a service like Good Friday: a dark image of violet, a black, a red Passion, pain, mystery, and then the Resurrection vestment for Easter Sunday celebration that is hope, life and redemption. To work with those colours and to work with forms creating that energy has been wonderful.

F.M.: We are living in a time where the separation between art and church has taken place. Your exhibition now is in a church which is a space defined in a specific way. Don’t you think that this kind of space will have an influence on a certain interpretation of your work? In a Christian context? Are you not anxious about this?

G.A.: What I hope is that when I put my work in this context, it will change the way people will see the work on the one hand, on the other hand, it may change the way people see religious issues and art in the church. I see these issues as being broad issues. I don’t see them as being necessarily only Protestant or even only Christian. They represent the concerns of all great religious thinking.

F.M.: Do you see your paintings in a broader context?

G.A.: Well I don’t want them to be within the narrow ideology of any particular religion. My hope is that these paintings deal with broad issues.

F.M.: They are above all confessions?

G.A.: Of course. The notion of suffering, of hope, the notion of transcendence and grace are themes in all religions, even the religions that are not organized religions such as those of the American Indians. All those themes are common. What I hope is that people don’t narrowly interpret my work and say: <<these paintings are just about Catholic issues>>. They are not simply that for me.

F.M.: And is it the same for the altar piece?

G.A.: The altar piece is a little different. It is more specifically Catholic and Christian.

F.M.: Although it is in accordance with your art?

G.A.: Yes, but it is something particular and deals with the classical themes of an altar piece.

F.M.: That is the Crucifixion and the christological unity of Passion, Death and Resurrection. There exists an immediate relation with the altar–like a sermon preaching the complex symbolism of the alter.

G.A.: Until recently I wasn’t concerned with these themes. But last year I visited all the North European altar pieces I had not seen before. I had only been in Italy and seen the Southern ones. On this trip last December I saw the van Eyck and Memling altarpieces and the Isenheimer Altar in Colmar. I saw them all in preparation for the exhibition in Sankt Peter in Cologne. It was a very interesting process.

F.M.: Would you say that art deeply deals with religion? Is it a way of relevation and inspiration?

G.A.: First as an artist and a painter the process of creating art seems to me to be metaphorical or parallel I should say to a person who is on a religions quest to understand himself or herself in the context of God or a larger universe. For me (and I think for most artists) the process of becoming aware of oneself and also of a larger world. It is a process of growth. Making a painting is like making a mirror. You look into a mirror and you see where you are, and you understand how you can grow and where you can grow. And then you make another painting.

F.M.: Religion does not do anything else.

G.A.: The issue of faith which is a primary issue in religion seems to me to be very deeply involved. It is essential to the issue of making art. You cannot wake up in the morning, go into a studio and make a painting without the belief that first you have something to express and, second what you express will be moving towards a greater clarity than what you expressed the day before or the year before.

F.M.: But these are private ideas about religion.

G.A.: I think in general very few artists that I know are obviously religious. The process is the same, although it is more solitary. I consider myself religious, although I am not involved in church organization. The process by which I grow may be similar to that by which you grow as a priest.

© Gregory Amenoff - 2012 - All rights reserved.