Interviewsand Articles

 

Toward Inaccessible Places: A Conversation with Andre Enard

by Richard Whittaker/Jane Rosen, May 18, 2008


 

 

The three of us sat at Jane Rosen’s dining room table in her home perched atop a ridge near the beach at San Gregorio in Northern California. Through a wide expanse of glass, the sweep of the coastal hills with their native redwood, oak, bay and madrone lay before us.
     We had just finished dinner. The fresh salad, with locally grown tomatoes and greens, included slices of mozzarella “not as good as in New York,” Jane said, a claim I’d have to take on faith. We all agreed the interview could wait until after our meal, but now the time had arrived. Enard, an old friend of Jane’s, was embarked on a new body of work. I was curious about his older work, too, and looked forward to learning more about this artist I hardly knew. Setting up the tape recorder, I asked for a sound check—“Jane, why don’t you say something?”


Jane Rosen:  Leonardo da Vinci said, “Painting is about the ten things you can see. These are brightness and darkness, solidity and color, motion and rest, form and position…”

Andre Enard:  He said also, “The eyes are the window of the soul”—a beautiful statement.

JR:  And, I’d love to know your opinion of this, he spoke about there being another sense that was invisible—“the common sense.” He said that it governed the terrain of art and it unified all of the senses to enlist their support for a finer awareness. He said that it was an actual sense.

AE:  Good. A common sense. Instinctive…

Richard Whittaker:  Okay—but could we back up? Andre, I understand that from an early age you knew you wanted to be an artist.

AE:  Yes. When I was maybe thirteen. I don’t know how I knew that—maybe because I was born near an extraordinary cathedral in Le Mans, a beautiful cathedral from the 12th, 13th century like Chartres or Notre Dame in Paris. Beautiful. Big, with wonderful windows, stained glass. And the building itself, when I passed in front every day to go to school, I was scared. Big building, yes? Old building, sacred building.

RW:  You were scared?

AE:  Yes. It was full of phantoms, like old buildings. I was scared, but I needed to pass everyday.
     After that, I went to art school when I was fifteen, sixteen, and every night, after school, I would pass again in front of this big cathedral. It was something important for me. At that time, there was no light in the city at night. It was during the German occupation.
     I was in art school and immediately we began to draw Greek and Roman statues, Egyptian antiques. I learned a lot about the nude. We had live models, too. 

RW:  Did you have the experience of going inside the cathedral?

AE:  Sure. My mother and I went to church every Sunday. My father was against church, against priests. [laughs] But my mother believed in God. I was baptized and had communion when I was twelve.

RW:  And all in that same cathedral?

AE:  Yes. I was not very religious, but I believed in something great. When you are five, you believe in something, right? Common sense, to believe in something. After that, you lose that, when you go to school. You don’t speak about that anymore.

RW:  You had the experience from the beginning of being in that space—the architecture and the stained glass, the light, so you feel that…

AE:  … the cathedrals are sacred buildings. The architects who built them knew something. They had knowledge about sacred art.

RW:  It was all an influence on you.

AE:  Yes. Instinctively.

RW:  Now jumping forward, you studied with Fernand Leger…

AE:  I went to Paris just after the war when I was seventeen. I went to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. At that time, it was very classical. Nothing else. I was in a class with a good teacher learning to paint on walls in the traditional technique of fresco.

RW:  Painting on wet plaster?

AE:  Not plaster, but a kind of cement. You have to paint when it is still wet. You have one hour, after that it is too late. You have to know what you are doing, yes? You can’t make mistakes.

RW:  You can’t come back tomorrow.

AE:  [laughs] No. But it is an old and wonderful technique, which lasts forever, many centuries. Today it does not exist anymore.

RW:  Did working in that way give you something?

AE:  I learned something from that. Certainly. After that, when I was in Paris, I enlarged some paintings for Leger.

JR:  Were you his student?

AE:  Yes. I was a good student.

JR:  Then you became an apprentice?

AE:  Yes, at that time. And a friend, Horia Damian, did that with me. Leger gave us some little sketches. We had to enlarge them on canvas for him and many times, he just came in to sign his name. After many years of apprenticeship, we knew what he wanted.
     Once Leger was commissioned to make stained glass windows for a big church. He said, “With God, I understand nothing.” He was a good Communist, no? [laughs] So he said, “Do that for me.” We did twenty sketches for him and he was happy. Sometimes he retouched a little bit, sometimes not. And we enlarged them for him, and for the company who made the windows.

JR:  And was Leger’s work and his way of seeing something that informed your work at all? Or was there just technique there?

AE:  In a way, both. We were influenced by Leger for many years. The big job after that was to be free from this influence. It was very good to be influenced, because I learned something from the master, and Leger was a great master. But the work to be free from that, to forget everything, was important work.

RW:  It was good to be with him. Could you say something about what you learned?

AE:  He was a Cubist. He said, “Free the color from the object.” He painted red or blue, no more like Cezanne or van Gogh. The color was free, liberated from the form. He did invent that. Sometimes Leger made a drawing and put a square of red in that was independent from the drawing. The form and the color were separated.

JR:  In art terms, we call that Modernism, right? They were the first people coming out of Manet where the modernists said that the subject matter wasn’t necessarily the content. The paint handling could be the content. And later I would love to know, with your later paintings, how that applies.

AE:  It is not so simple. It is not so direct. After Leger, I discovered Mondrian. Pure, abstract. Vertical. Horizontal. Squares. One yellow. One red. One blue. Something extraordinary and pure.

RW:  I’ve got the notion that he had some rather deep philosophical ideas he was exploring in his work.

AE:  I don’t know about that. I read many things from him. No, he was a painter.

JR:  But he’s interesting in that his whole life, even when he was showing the Boogie Woogie series, he always drew flowers.

AE:  I learned that he was painting flowers only for business, for a living. And after that, hated flowers, hated nature. He could not look at a flower. [laughs] He refused flowers in his apartment.

JR:  There’s something instructive there perhaps. If you take something you love and use it a certain way.

AE:  Maybe. I don’t know, but I heard it to be true.

RW:  Well in 1950, according to Halldor’s film [Halldor Enard, Andre’s son], you began to exhibit with a group of painters including Ellsworth Kelly.

AE:  Exactly. He was with Leger for some time. I met him there and some other Americans. He only had a few students at that time. We were a small group at first, but after that it became much bigger.

JR:  What kind of work were you doing at that time?

AE:  Abstract. Squares. Triangles. Circles. Primitive, in a way, but it was new at that time. It had a certain success and we showed in different galleries in Paris and Germany, but after that…

RW:  What are the things you recall from that period, things you took away with you?

AE:  Because we were a small group of people we were friends. We lived together. We talked about painting, a new way to paint, of course. It was the beginning of abstraction, in a way.

JR:  Wasn’t it true that at that time it was important that you found always something new that hadn’t been done before.

AE:  Exact. Yes.

JR:  Do you feel that that is true for you now?

AE:  In a way, yes.

JR:  There it was the first time for what is called “plastic” and now it seems like—I’m sure I’m jumping ahead, but I have a question about this—it seems to me that there is less of an interest in finding something “new” than there is in coming to something authentic.

AE:  I think you’re right. I have that impression now. I’m not alone. My old friend in France is beginning, after fifty years of abstract, some figuration. For us, we did abstract for fifty years, from the beginning. We knew Pollock and Mark Tobey, and all this American School. It is finished. We continue in a new way. Not to repeat what was done fifty years ago.

RW:  Here’s a question I have about how we understand “the new.” You also could say “original,” which comes from origin. So the thing is, if a work comes from some deep, essential place, it might be original in that sense. It may not look “new” at all, but it could still be “original.” And whenever that deep connection happens, that moment is felt as being new. So it’s an interesting question because the market is enamored of new as being novel, but there is this other thing that might not be novel in that way.

AE:  Absolutely.

RW:  Well, I was wondering if you might have any thoughts on that?

AE:  You have said it much better than me.

JR:  I’m thinking about the reproductions you showed us earlier of your new paintings and what comes to mind is—you know there are these very ancient paintings, I believe they are Egyptian, Faiyum portraits. They were done with encaustic…

AE:  I know them. Yes.

JR:  They are very frontal and very flat, but very powerful. I know that some of my students have discovered them, because no one is speaking about them at school, but they’ve gone and found them. The thing that came to mind in the paintings you’re doing is that striking simplicity.

AE:  Yes, I discover some years ago these portraits of the Egyptians. Strong. Beautiful. Extraordinary life in these people.

JR:  Yes. That’s what I liked about the frontality and I’m curious, because in those images you showed us, they’re almost too beautiful. It’s almost as if the force is lessened, to a certain extent, by the beauty and I’m wondering if that’s intentional.

AE:  I don’t know why the beauty should be against… Why? It’s not contradictory.

JR:  My instinct is that there is a difficulty when a color is beautiful and a figure is beautiful and it’s young and beautiful—that that is almost making the force of it be less visible.

AE:  What is the force of beauty?

JR:  I don’t know. 

AE:  You—you are beautiful.

JR:  No.


AE:  Yes! Because you have something real in yourself. You are not beautiful like a pin-up.

JR:  But it’s a question in those paintings between a kind of beauty, and a reverence for that beauty, and also the force of the presence that I’m not sure about. I have a question about that.
 
AE:  Me, too, of course. You’re right.

RW:  Well one thing that strikes me about these portraits is that there are subtle differences. If you look carefully you get the sense of a different personality. You must have a feeling for these subtleties.

AE:  You know, outwardly everybody is different, a different personality—everybody. But inside, we are all the same. The essence is all the same, you and you—and everyone. Something in common. I am looking for what we have in common. What is the original human being. Not the personality, but our essence.

RW:  Each looks different, but the gaze, this human gaze…

AE:  But inside, we are all the same.

JR:  Then why is it necessary to paint it over and over?

AE:  Because I am not satisfied each time. I have to begin again.

JR: What are you looking for that is not there?

AE:  If I knew it, I would stop painting! [laughs]

JR:  [laughs] But another question I have is, in my own work—whether it’s the torsos, or the abstract work or the horses—I see there is a thread through all of that work. I wonder, because when I look at your abstract work on your DVD, for me, the ones that are most like the spiritual icon are the least connected to the thread of everything else I saw, because there is a painterly hand everywhere else but there.

AE:  Of course, it is a different view of what I am looking for, but I am still looking for the same thing, something pure, something subtle. To make something visible that is not so visible.

RW:  Yes. I’m not sure I have the same take as Jane on that. But I was wondering if you would talk about that work, those abstract icons.

AE:  “Icon” you said?

RW:  I’ve heard the word “icon” used in relation to those images. What do you call them?

AE:  “Icon” is what? An image, a picture to come back to yourself. To pray. To meditate. A mandala, a mantra to help yourself to concentrate, to come back to the center. Icon is also used to pray.

JR:  Are you saying that looking at the painting helps you to come back, or the painting of it? Or both?

AE:  Both. I think that to arrive at this quality is a matter of attention. If you are attentive, that will pass something to the viewer.
 
RW:  Although I’ve just seen two, I think they are quite beautiful.

AE:  If it is true, as I said earlier, that attention is the breathing of God, a divine energy—and I feel that more and more—if you can carry that through a painting or music, people will receive it.

RW:  That is a great gift if that can be done.

AE:  That is my aim, in a way. That is sacred art. I don’t pretend that I am able to do that, but I feel something. I am sure that when Leonardo da Vinci painted Giaconda he was very passionate and attentive. Mona Lisa has a soul. It is the soul of Leonardo, and it is why Mona Lisa is still alive after 500 years.

JR:  Yes. But right there, what you just said, that he was both passionate and attentive. And I’ve always been told that one is against the other.

AE:  No. When you are passionate, you are all attentive. Your mind is attentive; your feelings are attentive; your body, your hand is attentive. That is a secret to sacred art.

RW:  Having all these parts engaged?

AE:  Absolutely.

RW:  And we don’t have a language today in the artworld for anything like that, or even an interest—as far as I can tell…
 
JR:  I’m sensing that this is beginning to change.

AE:  A painter like van Gogh was a very great painter. He was passionate, full of love, this man. We say now, he was crazy. I don’t think so. He was out of balance, maybe. He was too emotional, I suppose. But he didn’t kill himself. He had a gun to scare the crows, and he did that [gestures bringing his arm up quickly] to chase them and the gun went off and he killed himself by accident. He loved life, this man! He could not kill himself. Impossible!

JR:  Doesn’t the root of “attention” come from  attendez, to wait? Or “to listen.”

AE:  We can say that. Yes. Certainly.

JR:  It’s a question I have for my own work and with students when I watch. We try to be attentive, but to be attentive, I have to wait, to take in, right?

AE:  Yes, to attend…

JR:  So how do you see that with your own work? In terms of the passion and the attendez?

AE:  You heard that Japanese painter, a master, meditates for one hour before he takes a stroke with the brush. He can express, in an instinctive way, but meditate first for one hour trying to be watchful and stay in front, giving all his attention to it. Full of life, full of wish, yes?

RW:  I met a wonderful old Chinese man several years ago, a painter. He told me he had to dance first before he would pick up his brush. Then, after awhile, he could make the strokes.

AE:  [nods]

JR:  Well, you know Judy sweeps [Judy Pfaff]. She just looks into the studio, like this, and she’ll get a broom and she sweeps the whole floor. And when she’s done sweeping, she’s kind of like this [an expression of quiet attention]. And there’s the story of the Japanese potter who throws pots for three days and then for three days he sits and looks at the hundreds of pots and then he breaks all of them except for the three good ones. And when you say you are making more and more paintings, it takes that many to get at the… Or my friend, Susan Walp, spends a year on a figurative painting. So there are different ways.

AE:  I heard Leonardo da Vinci spent ten years to paint the Mona Lisa. Not all the time, of course. When he was an old man, he traveled to France, with only one painting, the Mona Lisa.

JR:  But you understand that, right?

AE:  Maybe in ten years, I will destroy 99 paintings and keep only one. [laughs]

JR:  No. Just give them to me. I have space. [laughs]

RW:  Well, you must find that, after a month, say, some of your paintings have more than others.

AE:  Sure.

RW:  Do you think that painting can do something that words can’t do? I just think it’s an interesting subject and I wondered if you had any thoughts on that.

AE:  I always dreamed to be a composer, a musician. My father was a musician, a teacher. He played violin and trombone. First, violin; it was the war—1914. He refused to have a gun, so they gave him the music. He learned trombone quickly and he went to the army, but he refused to shoot people. He was a wise man. He played trombone for four years then. He taught in music school. When I was young, I heard music everywhere. Classical music and jazz, at that time, and every Sunday he was in the park playing music.

RW:  What caused you to turn toward the visual arts?

AE:  I don’t know. I began when I was very young to play piano. Maybe because of a teacher, I was not happy with that. I wanted to paint, draw. Why, I don’t know.

RW:  Well, changing things a bit, I wonder how coming to New York affected you and your life.

AE:  Yes, it changed something because I was more free, in a way. When we came first, we moved to Armonk near New York City. We were there for five years—beautiful place, immense—in the middle of the woods with deer and raccoons. It was a new atmosphere, of course. And I painted almost every day at that time. Later we moved to New York City. We got rid of the cars and it was another atmosphere. I did some paintings using geometric shapes and labyrinths and later I returned to another source I had experience with before, in France, using tree bark.

JR:  What was interesting was those were more emotionally abstract. The world those always represented, with the space and the fineness of the natural markings of the bark, seemed like planetary features. Yet, in the 50s, if you said it was a circle and a square, this was also a circle and a square. And you didn’t make all those little markings, the bark did.

AE:  Yes. I had to choose carefully the right piece of bark. I just cut and painted around it. I was passionate to do that for four or five years.

RW:  I heard somewhere that you’d been concentrating on the “infinitely small” and then later turned your attention to the “infinitely large.”
 
AE:  I don’t think like that. Some critic wrote that. They love to speak like that. But when I paint, I don’t think about that.

RW:  What are you doing when you paint?

AE:  Well, as you know, I dream a lot, like you and like everybody else. [laughs] But when I’m very passionate, I don’t think. With my mind, my hand and here [points to heart] I’m present to what I am doing. But not always, of course.

RW:  When you are present and you’re not thinking, what is happening?

AE:  I express something sincere, maybe. When I don’t dream, when I’m really here. You know that when you sit in the morning. When you’re very present, attentive, you don’t dream. You don’t think. No words, no? Just silence when you are here, watchful, watchful. Nothing else. Doing nothing. It’s the most difficult—to do nothing. To be entirely doing nothing. This is an opening to a real world.

RW:  Does feeling come into this?

AE:  Certainly. Yes. But nothing to do with ordinary emotion. The feeling of being, yes? Something very different. A sacred feeling when you are silent, wordless, doing nothing, staying with nothing, which is not an absence. It is a presence to something higher. A great silence is not an absence of noise. It’s a presence to something finer. Real silence. Stay with that for five minutes or one hour, if you can. Be watchful and nothing else. You need a strong will, a strong wish. Strong attention.

RW:  It is interesting how, in front of a canvas, I can be called that way, sometimes.

AE:  I don’t know what will happen. It is the beginning of real creation. Without any automatism.

RW:  I’ve talked with many artists and something approaching this is an experience so many have tasted. There’s such a hunger for it that people come back in search of it. But it all tends to get very confused in the context of the artworld with the competition for sales, the need for exhibiting, the desires for this and that.

AE:  Yes. I understand. There are many traps. I suppose Mondrian, when he was painting that [gestures vertical and horizontal] he was pure, like a monk. Pure attention. I imagine it. I don’t know. For that you have to be so present, so attentive. No inner automatism. Like an icon, you can pray in front of that, if you believe in something higher than you.

JR:  I work in the studio all day, every day. One day it was the big marble, which was very difficult and Paul Reynard came to the studio and I was covered with dust. He looked at me and he said, “You see God sometimes, don’t you?” And I just said, “Yes.” And he said, “And the devil?” And I said, “Shortly thereafter.”
     What I find now is that it’s necessary to see the work as objectively as I can, that there’s both the silence and there is a lot of noise about “is this color right? Is this right? Is this what I wish for?” and to not judge either, but to include both as best I can. So I’m watching that I have an idea about this hawk or this face, let’s say, but also that I’m being trapped by this beauty. That’s what I was asking you about. Because I get enchanted by the beauty of nature and get taken away by trying to make a replica. So this is the question I have, because the minute you have an object and a wish in front of you, you’re no longer free.

AE:  You’re right. It’s true, but you have to try to be free, in spite of everything. For one minute, five minutes, if it is possible. You have to practice and practice and practice every day to reinforce the wish for freedom, not to be taken, identified as we are.

JR:  You also spoke about the passion of van Gogh, who was certainly taken.

AE:  Yes. I imagine. Constantly. But for one minute, sometimes he was a God, hmm?

RW:  I saw van Gogh’s paintings at the Met, work from that intense ten-year period when it all came together for him.

AE:  Very touching. Because, at the same time, he expresses joy and suffering.

RW:  At one moment, they brought tears to my eyes. There was something about the color. It communicated, maybe it was a state of being that I felt.

AE:  Yes, you could cry in front of them.

RW:  Because what did it take to get that color?

AE:  Great power. I saw the same exhibition.

RW:  It’s mysterious that those paintings could have that effect, that this power, or some state of being could be conveyed.

AE:  It is mysterious.

JR:  What other artist’s work do you feel that way about in the last one hundred years?

AE:  Well, Picasso. He was a real painter from the top of his head to the toes of his feet. Nothing else.

JR:  I’m trying to link some of the previous things you spoke about with Picasso. For me that’s more possible with van Gogh.

AE:  Sure, sure. I prefer van Gogh, if I have to choose. Giotto, too.

JR:  But in the last one hundred years?

AE:  There’s not a lot. Because the painters don’t believe in God anymore. They believe in me, me, me. There was a time they didn’t sign their paintings. An icon painter, you didn’t know his name.

RW:  I gather that, with Abstract Expressionism, it was still possible to search for something deep, or even sacred. Take the crosses of Ad Reinhardt, for instance.

AE:  I don’t know.

RW:  Did you feel any of that in New York in 1974? I know it was already on its way out.

AE:  No, but there are some people…
 
JR:  Kandinsky?

AE:  He was not very spiritual, Kandinsky. Maybe a great painter, but decorative.

JR:  And what makes something decorative versus something being spiritual?

AE:  An interesting question. It is a quality of feeling, I think. There was another great painter, Russian. What was his name?

RW:  Malevich?

AE:  Yes. Pure. He’s the father of abstract painting. Unfortunately, he stopped very early because of the Communists. 

RW:  I always felt that there was a note that was sounded through Malevich and Kandinsky and others around the turn of the century that only went a little ways and got deflected. Do you feel that?

AE:  Yes. Yes. It’s true for Malevich.

RW:  Well, just one or two more questions. I wondered if you’d talk a little about what happened in 2002. This was an important date for you. You met an old friend…

AE:  Oh, yes. When I was with Leger I worked with Horia Damian. He was from Romania. He was a very talented young man. And he continued to paint and became well known in Europe. I met him again one summer when I went back to Paris in 2002. He found a new way to paint figuration. I was feeling a bit discouraged at that time. I didn’t know what direction to take. This meeting gave me a big shock. It was very refreshing and I began to paint again—the human being. I was 75 and I began a new career as if I was a beginner.
     I see him now every time I go to France. He’s a bit older than me. A great painter. I’m sure he will be well-known in ten years. Like Brancusi.
     You know Brancusi was almost unknown in the fifties. I visit him one day with Horia. It was very interesting meeting Brancusi. He was an old man, small man with beard, like a saint in an icon. Beautiful white beard. A wise man. Like a monk.

RW:  Had he gotten much recognition when you met him?

AE:  He was almost unknown. The French never bought anything from Brancusi during his lifetime.

RW:  He must have had something that kept him going.

AE:  Yes. If you wish. But he was dead when he became well known.

RW:  You go to Paris every year. What is the atmosphere in the artworld in Paris nowadays? Do you have any sense of that?

AE:  The same as in New York. Same thing everywhere.

JR:  Maybe you have to be superficial to do well in the artworld. What do you think about that?

AE:  I don’t want to be like that. I prefer to be unknown and sell nothing. No concession. No self-pity.

RW:  What do you need to keep going? That is a question I ask myself. Maybe you don’t need a lot. Maybe it varies with people. What does it take to keep one’s heart up, so to speak? And not to give in to despair.

AE:  You have to have faith for life and for what you are doing. Passionate. If you are not passionate, better to watch TV like so many people do. They retire. They stop working and they die little by little.

RW:  I asked Viola Frey what she told her students about being an artist today. She told them that everyone wanted to be an artist, but the question was who needed to be an artist. She worked in her studio right up to the end.

JR:  I have a goal, which comes from something I heard many years ago, a Sufi saying: “Love God, but tie your camel first.” And when I look outside, no matter what mood I’m in, when the sun goes down and there is this illumination, for a moment, I know there is a God. And somehow, if making the art…

AE:  Yes. Because you know, you feel, you still have God in you. That is something rare today. God is dead for many people. People are looking for money, looking for power. Not for God.

JR:  Maybe it’s lost inside.

AE:  Lost, if you wish. In the TV, no God. In the newspaper, no God. If you don’t find that in yourself, you have to dig for it. You have to find that in yourself. And you find it, if you wish. If you are quiet, if you are silent, you find something like God, something finer. And I am full of hope for the young generation because now they are looking for that everywhere in the world. They feel the need for the divine in their lives. ∆ 
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. Jane Rosen is an artist living in northern California

 

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