I really have no story to tell, and as you know very well, it’s almost impossible to paint people in some fraught situation, or even in a rather benign way, and not have the viewer project meaning, narrative, story.
Peter Saul: In your interview with Wayne Koestenbaum, it’s revealed that you cover up all the parts of the painting you’re not working on with pieces of paper. I assume this is practical, so you won’t be distracted from the small area you’re concentrating on?
Mark Greenwold: Well, it really is about hiding what I’m working on, even from myself. Sort of crazy for most painters I think, and not exactly ‘practical’, but not so different from a novelist working for years on a project and not reading the chapters daily as they pile up. No matter the radical changes in scale in my work through many years – from my very large paintings as a young artist, to the mid-career gouaches that were often smaller than a sheet of typing paper, to the work of the last ten years that has grown in scale to a rather ‘normal’ four feet or so – the process has been to cover up everything I’m not working on and only look at the tiniest part of what I am painting. And yes, it’s all about focus and concentration and creating an atmosphere for myself of a feverish intensity – ‘hysterical realism’, I’ve recently called it – as well as the fictive comfort I feel that, however long it takes (often a year or more), I’m building something that will be worth the effort. Alas, however maddening and perhaps delusional, the anxiety in the process is part of what the work is all about, and I hope it looks and feels like no one else’s.
PS: Is this also to prevent a story – in the usual sense, a commonly understood narrative – from developing? How do you feel about storytelling in art? I mean Titian, Rembrandt, Norman Rockwell, etc., independent of ideas of quality.
MG: I swear I feel no conscious desire to ‘prevent a story’. I really have no story to tell, and as you know very well, it’s almost impossible to paint people in some fraught situation, or even in a rather benign way, and not have the viewer project meaning, narrative, story. I was struck when I went to Italy and saw the great figurative paintings from the past, manifestly portraying the Life of Christ. I felt, as a Jew, how great the paintings were, and how little the story mattered. To me, of course. Or more precisely, how mute a single painting really is; how unable to narrate a story like writing or film can do, and how painting is closer to music in this way, I suppose.
As far as those artists you’ve mentioned, Rembrandt’s a great artist, but a terrible storyteller. His stories are always undermined by the human faces, often his own; deeply moving, very specific portraits of people separate from the narrative context. He’s really not very good at orchestrating narrative and telling stories like Norman Rockwell is. But then, Rembrandt wasn’t working for the Saturday Evening Post. Frankly, in the Titians I love, I have no idea what may or may not be taking place. As you can see, this is a quirk in my personality: sheer perversity, or maybe a neurotic symptom of growing up in a Greenbergian universe in the early ‘60s as a painter, considering myself a ‘formalist’ but never for a moment thinking of making anything but representational painting. Of course Rothko wanted people to cry in front of his paintings and reference the Holocaust and so forth. Good luck with that.
PS: It must be quite a surprise to finally view the whole picture completed. Or not? I assume you take a look at the whole picture now and then.
MG: Yeah. I try not to look at the whole thing too often, but God knows, after a year or more of working on something there are very few surprises left. Mostly the great relief that I’ve finally finished the fucking thing! And of course, the real pleasure, as the cliché goes, is very much in the process – the work itself. But as far as the process goes, my other absolute fetish is that the work has to work as a whole, so I’m constantly tweaking the process to see if it’s making ‘painting sense’, that is, physical sense to me as an object. I guess it is one of the tenets of my generation to make the work itself important as an object, rather than having it be about something ‘important’.
PS: Considering that you tell no easily understood story, your pictures radiate a very intense and interesting psychology. Every figure is perhaps ninety percent self-involved, and the remaining ten percent exists in the mind of the viewer. Is this your intended art style; something you always wanted to do? Or did it just creep up on you over the years?
MG: That’s funny and pretty accurate about the percentages. But if it’s OK with you, I’m going to quote something you generously wrote me after seeing my recent show. You said you think I’m “doing for psychology in painting what Matisse did for colour”. Aside from the distinct possibility you were just blowing smoke up my ass, it really does express my ambition as an artist; that is, to make an emotionally complex reality that’s dramatic and heartbreaking, as painting.
And the narcissism, the self-involvement, the fact that I paint myself into every painting, the fact that nobody seems to be listening to anybody and there is conflict and claustrophobia everywhere – well, welcome to the Shtetl culture. The thing I’ve always loved about your ‘monsters’, be the OJ, Jeffrey Dahmer, Reagan, or Hilton Kramer, was that they were all about you! Harold Pinter is all about Pinter. Bacon, Bacon…
PS: How do you feel about being out of step with modern art appreciation that values fresh and unusual technique a great deal more than any idea of content or psychology? Do you give a damn? Enjoy your position as most psychologically attuned artist.
MG: I’m not certain what this moment is about vis-à-vis content and psychology and all the rest. I think the visual arts, and painting in particular, is well behind even serious literature, film, and TV, which is more and more ambitious in dealing with psychology and the nature of being human. So much of what I see in visual art is so scared and PC and boring; wrapped in theory or, worse yet, fearful of saying anything real or idiosyncratic that might trigger displeasure in the viewer. It seems the would-be heirs to the Peter Sauls of this world are getting rarer than ever.
PS: Concerning the painting of flesh: You go to great lengths to identify each figure by bumps, scars, veins, blotches, moles, irritations, and so on. Is this a way of telling the viewer that you really saw it, really took a photo, absolutely are not making it up? For your own fun or artistic purpose, are you constructing a fiction out of many truths?
MG: This question opens up a whole can of worms. A sympathetic critic writing about my recent painting of Paul Simon said he looks like he has ‘schmaltz’ on his head. Or did he say a ‘gefilte fish’?
PS: In your picture A Matter of Life and Death (2015), there seems to be a strong connection developing between the figures, but it’s more a matter of one figure having an opinion of another than an indication some action will take place. Yes?
MG: Yes, EXACTLY! But also, this painting – and frankly, all the recent stuff – is about growing old. The fear, uncertainty, and existential complexity, and also the counterintuitive joy inherent in all this. The ‘narrative’, if you will – great subject matter for my art, but I’m afraid the story will not end well. Given my own non-narrative method of working, I’m interested in how driven you are by stories and storytelling in your work. The story or content is often politically or socially motivated: Cautionary, morally and ethically driven. Am I correct in believing this?
PS: Yes, I’ve been grateful. I felt extremely lucky to have stories to tell, since about 1958 when the idea occurred to me. At that moment, it seemed all known, professional artists wanted to be involved in the plastic elements of art – line, colour, space, form, etc.; what I thought of as ‘technique’ – and tried hard to avoid that ‘other’ thing we call content, story, psychology, history, etc. So here was a chance to distinguish myself by doing something wrong, on a purely intellectual level of course, not physically dangerous. I simply started out telling stories for no good reason other than being an unknown, completely isolated person in a hotel room.
Why not? I wasn’t even aware of the so-called rules of modern art (Albers, Clement Greenberg, etc.). Nothing to lose! So how has storytelling worked out? First of all, the purpose of the ‘story’ is to help the picture to be more interesting to look at, not to explain anything or be truthful about something. It’s simply an opportunity to use my imagination, hoping imagination plus fresh dramatic technique – which is also a matter of opinion – will cause someone to look at the picture with genuine interest. Has this occurred? I don’t know. Yes and no.
Concerning the early, 1960-64 icebox pictures, no, I didn’t have feminism in mind. The idea that, to some extent, a ‘collective opinion’ exists – like women think this, men think that, blacks think this, whites think that, and so on – never occurred to me until about 1969–70 when I began to read about it in the newspaper.
I chose the refrigerator as subject for its orderliness, at least in advertisements. All the meat in this compartment, vegetables over there. Nothing out of place. Consequently, it was an opportunity to mess up, go nuts, Donald Duck phones the lamb chops while a car makes love to the lettuce, and so on. It made me laugh, and achieved some kind of audience, at least in Chicago.
MG: And what about the suburban home painting Untitled from 1973, which was recently shown at the Independent Art Fair and never shown before? I coincidentally had a painting in the Independent too, called Bright Promise from the early 70s, which had rarely been seen. Am I right to assume that the possible ‘autobiographical’ content – which seemed evident to me, at least from that suburban house painting, with a car in the driveway, etc. – and all the potential drama of domestic life, became less important to you as an artist over the years?
PS: Concerning the painting of the 1973 suburban house at the Independent Fair, there is definitely autobiographical content. I had just left an upper middle class home in Mill Valley to live in an artist’s loft in Port Costa. Suburban Home is a swell subject, an opportunity to make a lot of architectural mistakes, and have the wrong attitude in general; I return to it occasionally.
MG: With your immensely powerful Vietnam pictures you became a kind of ‘history painter’ as opposed to a ‘genre’ painter, which I suppose is what I am. I’ve always been struck by how people like Chardin, a painter I particularly love, were considered lesser because they couldn’t deliver on the big history painting. Does any of what I’m saying about this historical hierarchy in what has been considered serious painting make any sense to you?
PS: Considering how history painting has been considered more important than still life, etc., no I don’t pay any attention to that opinion. Even though my Vietnam pictures are of a political subject that is now historical, they insult the facts (probably) and belittle any reasonable human response. That’s in line with my attitude to painting refrigerators.
MG: What about the self, as in your fictional ‘self-portraits’? Are they, in fact, that? I’ve always envied how you could extract just as much horror, humanity, and humour from picturing a guy simply brushing his teeth. Or your terrific recent painting that you said was inspired by yourself and Sally being mistaken for two traveling women at the airport. A very powerful, confessional insight about ageing – but do you make these distinctions? Was the hilarious story you told about you and your wife even part of the final painting?
Secondly, I want to ask you about sex and violence. You have been the most fearless artist I know of in portraying people loving, fucking, raping, and generally acting out in ways that often feel highly un-American. What some people might call polymorphously perverse, even when they’re slices of chocolate and angel food cake making out. Astonishing, really! Where do you get the courage?
PS: Your last two questions are about ‘self-portraits’ and ‘sex’, and the answer is, my imagination doesn’t worry me any. Perhaps it should. But I feel I know what I’m doing in this world, physically speaking, not worried about my behaviour, living the way I want. So I turn my imagination loose, I can think any thought. It’s OK! If my picture needs something really, really horrible, I can think it up right away with real enthusiasm and not worry that it’s something I might not want to do. Likewise for sex: Anything can be pictured; doesn’t mean it should, could, or would happen. It’s only a picture. If that all sounds too ideal, I have to admit to trouble keeping my sense of humour under control. I like to laugh and curse while I work, and modern art is a field of enjoyment for me. But I don’t want to give the impression of laughing at bad stuff, at least not too often. At age 82, I need a normal art career.
Anyway, I wanted to ask if you ever get impatient with copying the photos you work from? I ask because I also use photos to work from – pieces of food, airplanes, furniture, this and that. It can give fresh details to the picture. But if it takes a long time or becomes tedious, I drop the photo and paint freely from imagination, which is a lot easier, faster, and maybe better artistically. Do you do that sometimes?
MG: As far as working from photos, I’ve always needed some connection to perceptual reality; to the way things actually look in the world. And the tradition of working from the live model, the landscape, or still life never appealed to me. Too far away or too close, much too much information (detail), even in the simplest object seen firsthand. Too much psychological, i.e. erotic, distraction in a live model, especially an attractive one. Also the degree of complex subject matter you can actually bring into the studio to paint, no matter how big your budget, seems rather limited. So a photo, or many photos per a single painting, is perfect for me and always has been. A photo that I can imagine into and transform, with enough of
the facts presented so I can hopefully move through it into being, rather than a ‘copy’, a whole new thing. But I do sometimes get stuck on the specifics of things. And unlike you, I can never completely throw the photos away and make it all up. But you’re working in a very different tradition of representation than I am. More and more I see myself as some sort of proto-Cubist or demented abstractionist, who is slowly emerging from his ‘realist’ constraints.
PS: Would you agree that in modern art, the words ‘psychology’, ‘content’, ‘story’, ‘history’, and ‘subject matter’ all mean about the same thing?
MG: I totally agree that in the end, all the words mean the same thing, and not only in modern art. But the fact that ‘the story’ or ‘the psychology’ or whatever means a great deal to the individual artist – well, I guess that is what gets us all up in the morning.
PS: Also, I want to say your phrase ‘hysterical realism’ is a great description of your work. You should use it as often as possible, because it distinguishes you from all the other realists that come to mind.
MG: Thanks, Peter – I will!