Conversation with Hadi Tabatabai: Not This, Not That
by Richard Whitaker, Jul 6, 2008
Berkeley CA May 14 2008
Hadi Tabatabai and I talked at his studio in Berkeley. I’d met the artist seven or eight years earlier and had been struck by the extreme quiet and subtle rigor of his work. From that time on, I found myself interested in this artist. Just a few days after the death of Agnes Martin in December of 2004, I got a message from Hadi. For our next issue [#10] he contributed an article in memorium of Martin with whom he shares a deep affinity. Although we’d talked about doing an interview, it took awhile before this finally came to pass. Considering the subtlety of his work, I felt the passage of time could only work to our mutual advantage. Some things unfold quite slowly. There is no other way…
Richard Whittaker: You were just saying that things seemed to be on a positive note for you right now, so let’s start there. You’re feeling cautiously optimistic.
Hadi Tabatabai: Well I always have. I create a carrot for myself that leads the donkey. So in that sense, I’ve always been optimistic. There’s always something around the corner that’s going to happen. In most cases, it doesn’t. But another carrot appears.
Overall, I feel a little bit more comfortable about my position as an artist and the response I have been getting. Again, nothing is solid. I don’t know if anything will ever be completely solid—an art career where everything is going to roll and I can sit there comfortably and do my work. It just hasn’t been easy, and it’s becoming more and more difficult as an artist to function individually outside of the art world and try to do honest work.
You’re always pushed to have some sort of story behind what you’re doing, which, from day one, I decided not to have. It’s all about a process for me. At least for the past twelve years or so, I decided that my work was going to be sort of a documentation of my passage through life, which I don’t even know what that means.
RW: Looking at your work, it’s quite abstract. So when you say “documentation”—what comes to mind is that it reflects something contemplative.
HT: I guess the documentation is more about my engagement with life, with materials. I keep going back to the whole idea of the cave drawings, and mostly the handprints in the caves. For somebody who presses their hand against some hard material, I think they’re trying to preserve their existence somehow. I think it’s been important for us as human beings to sort of transfer our experience or to share our experiences with others. I think that’s basically what I do. My life process is dealing with these materials and trying somehow to preserve a moment of my existence and somehow share this with someone else.
RW: Working with materials—how does that relate with preserving your existence?
HT: I think that’s all we have as human beings as we interact with this world, which is a material world. It’s a process of discovering or rediscovering ourselves. It’s probably from the first drawings. It’s like turning over a rock to see what’s underneath. Maybe there’s an answer underneath there for you.
RW: Let’s take an example of one of your pieces, which is a piece where a fine thread is threaded in a very precise pattern. How does that work with this engagement in the world, which preserves?
HT: That’s the thing. I don’t think there is a specific activity that is important. It’s whatever activity you have that feels real to you. Working with thread at that moment, was real to me. It’s not about anything in particular. It’s any activity. It could be stacking up legos, if that’s what engages you at that moment.
I just basically go day by day, and I work very intuitively. I can only do what feels right at the moment and fits the material. There are materials that become interesting for me. I purchased a piece of alabaster three years ago and just recently started working on it about a month ago. It’s that little piece over there. I decided today is the day to work on it. Or all of the sudden I need to work with steel.
RW: Okay. You said “today is the day I decided to work on it.” Did you decide to work on it? or did it happen that today was the day for that?
HT: It came about, yes. I don’t look for ideas. You look for inspirations and somehow I was inspired by alabaster. Perhaps some other artist used alabaster in a way that spoke to me. So I decided to have it in my space, and when the time came, I would have that alabaster handy.
RW: So “when the time comes”—that interests me. Would you say that the time came, and you recognized it?
RW: But that wasn’t the same thing as deciding to do it.
HT: No. But that’s what I mean. It’s more about inspiration. You get inspired by the materials. It could even be poetry I read somewhere that triggers something.
RW: So let’s stick with this alabaster. Three years ago something moved you to get it, right?
RW: Three years ago some voice or some impulse spoke to you about the alabaster, and you listened.
RW: But then three years passed.
HT: I think I just wasn’t ready. It didn’t feel right when I brought it in. If I had just made something when I brought it in, it would have just been an object made out of alabaster. Whereas now, I’m trying to have this experience with the alabaster and see and understand what wants to come out of that piece of alabaster.
RW: I guess I’m trying open up this question where you’ve said, “I’m working to preserve my existence,” or something like that. It’s almost like being here in existence is kind of a question. I don’t know what is going to make me feel like I am preserving myself. Does that resonate?
HT: The question for me is always—I’m not really interested in who I am—I think I’m more interested in why I am. That’s why being engaged in the present, and trying to understand my relationship within this material world becomes important.
RW: So how does that work?—this exploration of the material substance. How does it work with regard to the question of why I am?
HT: I will need to move back in time a little bit. For the past few years the work has become more about space. It started out as a process. I don’t know why I needed to have this activity, but I felt like I had to have an activity. So it became a process of mark-making, senseless mark marking. Just taking a type of mark and repeating it for a whole day, a couple of weeks, a few months, whatever it took.
RW: That was a meaningful thing, an exploration, too?
HT: It was but, at the time, it didn’t make sense because there was nothing there but marks. And they didn’t necessarily carry any narrative story. There was no story to it other than it became the story of a human being, day to day. Now, my work has moved a little more into dealing with space. It’s about a transitional space.
The marks were about lines, and then the whole thing became about lines as a transitional space—where one thing shifts to another. I felt that that space is what holds more truth to it, for me. It’s an empty space. It’s not this or that.
I really got tired of ideas, this idea or that idea. I always felt dissatisfied when I stuck to one idea. It was good for a moment, and then the next moment it would vanish. I had to put all my pressure into preserving that, saying that the idea was important. So basically the line is something that I felt held more truth, because it was nothing.
RW: Can I back up? I’m very interested in the meaningfulness of your activity. What is it that’s meaningful about it? You said that you began just making marks and that recording them was like just recording a kind of humanness. Not having an idea about it. You would do this sometimes for hours?
HT: For hours—sometimes months, six months.
RW: Okay. So I’m imagining that there is something in that process of making marks that makes that meaningful.
HT: Oh, of course.
RW: Can you say what that is?
HT: That—I don’t know what it is. Again, it’s some sort of inspiration, and also that believing. I still have that, although I still think that what I do is sort of senseless. What is building a grid? But I think if I have the energy to pursue that activity, to make that thing, that’s enough for me. I think I am on the right track.
RW: How do you tell when it’s “good enough for me?”
HT: It’s good enough for me when it’s a learning tool. I always try to do something that I’m not extremely comfortable with doing. It’s always a new learning process, learning how to put something together. It’s all sort of a problem solving process. That’s good enough for me. If I’m repeating myself, if I’m just making something, making it for somebody else, then it’s not good enough. But this exploration, whatever it is, is good enough for me. Just the fact. If I have the energy to spend four months gluing little pieces of wood onto a backing, I can’t do that again. Now I just don’t have the energy to do that anymore.
RW: Have you ever had the experience where you glued little pieces of wood for four months, or you strung little lines of polyester, and it didn’t work?
HT: The not working is kind of a tricky thing. They all work, and they’re failures, at the same time. They all work because, in a sense, it’s a legitimate experience and I’m learning through that experience.
Yes. Some things, visually, might fail. Or as far as the materials, I just couldn’t get them to work properly. But that is only for the outside. That’s about “Do I have an object now that is going to end up on a wall somewhere, or on a pedestal?” That’s how we usually look at it to judge whether something’s successful. But for me, it’s just the process. I’ve actually learned more from the things that have failed than somehow the things that end up being more successful.
RW: So again, I’m still wondering, what makes an object be okay after you’ve spent the time on it and what makes one not work?
HT: For me, the form of a good piece of work doesn’t matter. It’s one that carries some truth with it. I think most of us are capable of seeing that. I think that’s why we have masterpieces that a good number of people will agree about, that this is a good piece of work, whatever it is. It holds a truth, and I think the truth comes from the intention. If there is the right intention for creating that then, as an artist, you can preserve some truth into the work. That’s what makes something successful for me.
RW: I’m fascinated by what you’re saying, that a piece can hold some truth. And I have to ask, what is that? Because clearly, subjectively, there are pieces that hold truth for you. I mean people will look at your work and I think they will be puzzled. So what is this truth?
HT: I think the puzzle part comes from the fact that we don’t really look at things anymore. We don’t really have our own real personal experience. And I want to keep my work completely empty.
So I think that’s why, to a lot of people, the work becomes a little difficult because there is no point of entry in the sense that it tells them what type of an experience they need to have. In that sense, they become a little puzzled.
But the work is only about self-reflection. I think all my work is about smallness. When you look at something small—and I don’t necessarily mean, by the size of it—it makes you reflect on yourself. It brings you closer to yourself. You become closer. Whereas most things just bring you out into the world.
I think it’s much more important to come back to ourselves, to understand. I’m interested in the point of origin. Where is it, as human beings, that we connect with each other?
I believe in an absolute. I don’t believe in multiple realities. So going back to the idea of space, I think that space comes from an internal sense that we all have, which is universal. It is about a sense of comfort. It’s about rhythm, proportion. These are the only things I try to deal with in my work and, in a very intuitive way, at the time I’m working on the piece. What are the proportions of the grid going to be? And the temperature of the piece? Is it going to be cool or hot?
I think those are the things that speak to us. Again, this might be difficult for people if they expect to get something further from the work, because there is nothing there other than forcing you to reflect back on yourself at a very basic level.
RW: So going back to one of your aims, can the work remain completely empty?
HT: No. It can’t. And that’s another thing. I try to achieve neutrality, but it’s an impossible task. That’s also what drives me. If I finally achieve it, there’s no purpose to continue. But everything to me is a failure. Let’s go to color—it’s either going to be a little too light, or a little too dark, a little too hot or a little too cool.
RW: But some of them are closer.
HT: Sure. I think those are the ones that are a little more successful.
RW: When something comes a little bit closer, when you have worked on a piece and it’s within hailing distance of something, you say, “this one I keep.” What is that moment? What is that experience?
HT: I guess there is some satisfaction there.
RW: Is it a feeling? Or is it an intellectual thing?
HT: It is a feeling. I try not to look at things too intellectually. I don’t try to take things apart too much. Because I’m trying to work for a sense, which is important to me, and that I can’t put into words. It’s more like a dream. You feel it, and you understand it. But the more you try to understand it, the more it falls apart.
RW: You go through a process of hours, days, even months. Does the process put you at the threshold of something?
HT: You’re talking about me being a viewer of my work, and I’m not a viewer of my work. Like I said, all I see are failures in the work, and they are just mechanical failures. Out of two hundred pieces of thread, two of them are a little too close to each other. The only time I become a viewer of my work is maybe five or ten years after it’s finished. It’s somewhere else and then I come upon it. At that time, they do become satisfying to me. There is something there, maybe not for all of them, but then I’m happy they are in this world and that there other people who find them important and are interacting with them. In that sense, it is satisfying.
RW: It’s interesting your saying, “I’m not a viewer of my work.”
HT: It’s too close to me. I can’t see it.
RW: Would you agree that you’re a maker of your work?
HT: Sure. It’s the process of making. To me, that is important. Having the real experience that I haven’t had before. The work looks very similar to what has come before, but it’s always trying to push a little harder to achieve that neutrality.
RW: Trying a little harder to achieve that neutrality. That seems very important and also kind of difficult for most of us to understand, “to achieve a neutrality.” Have you had moments where you have felt this neutrality?
HT: Yes. You know, I think a lot of us do, but again they are like dreams. You might go for a hike or something like that. In nature, perhaps, it happens more.
RW: So say something about that experience.
HT: It’s an experience of kind of understanding and, at the same time, it’s accepting. It removes all your burdens. You just feel that you understand it, and that it’s not difficult—and it makes you want to continue.
RW: In this moment of neutrality, the burdens fall away?
RW: Is there a feeling of openness?
HT: Yes. But again, it’s like a dream. It’s nothing you can grab onto.
RW: It’s not accessible to the ego’s wishes.
HT: No. It’s not about that at all.
RW: So this is something that’s outside of the realm of grasping. This moment of neutrality. Something seeks that, and yet it’s not easily found.
HT: Well, I don’t know how difficult it is. I think there are ways of achieving it. I had the great experience of going through a ten-day period of silent meditation a few years back, and that’s one way of achieving it. But you know, I don’t think that’s good enough for me. I mean I think meditation is very mechanical—even though I think it’s needed. I’ve lived forty-four years of life with this system that’s not correct, so to speak…
RW: What system are you speaking of?
HT: The culture, the society that dictates things to us, helps us blow up our egos. So now, to change that whole procedure, you have to do it mechanically, through meditation. But I’m more interested in having that meditation in the society, within the culture, and to be engaged with it. I don’t want to be outside of it.
I don’t know if it was in the book or the movie, Razor’s Edge. The character spends some time in the monastery and then he goes up in the mountains and spends some time by himself. He comes back and decides to leave the monastery. His teacher tries to discourage him because of all the progress he’s made, but he says, “It’s easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain.” He wants to be among people.
RW: It’s interesting that you would invoke this, “It’s easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain.” Obviously you are citing this statement in relation to what you are doing here, so I’m going to ask you to talk about that word “holy” in relation to this endeavor of artmaking. That was your word.
HT: [laughs, silence] Well, for one thing, being an artist is—I hate to use the word “chosen”—but that’s the closest word I know. I think you’re chosen to be an artist. I think we all have our own natures. We have to find what that is, and pursue that in life. So being an artist is something you’re chosen to do. I think it’s a very honorable position. So you have to have respect for the actual art making, also for the materials you use. In a sense, it is a holy act. It’s not a pursuit of the ego.
I think, unfortunately, it has become that since art has become a commodity, and since uniqueness has become so important. Who is the next person who is going to come out with something that hasn’t been done before?
I don’t think about that.
Art making in a lot of cases has become about art history, and so everything becomes as a reaction to that. But I think art is not about reacting. It’s about acting in the moment. It’s also about starting from zero, whereas now intellectually you understand certain things. If you understand Abstract Expressionism and Postmodernism, then you try to jump ahead of that. And all that kind of work is just working from outside.
For me, it’s about working from the inside. I think that reflects on that holiness. I don’t really know what “holy” means. Is it being genuine and being honest and being respectful? Those are the main criteria for being an artist.
RW: Listening to you, there are a number of things that occur. Often I find myself thinking about how we live in a culture totally dedicated to exteriority—even in things we might consider to be interior, like the exploration of emotions, for instance. This is approached via chemistry and CAT scans, mapping neural patterns and so on. That’s our cultural bent, isn’t it?
HT: Yes. But for me it is all about the interior. Again, I think with exteriority it becomes about the others, other people’s pursuits and needs, and reacting to that and trying to fulfill that. Whereas, for me, it’s all about me, ultimately. It’s about me understanding my connection with it all.
RW: That’s a bold statement. “It’s all about me.” Because you know how that can be heard. But I know that’s not the way you mean it.
HT: A perfect example, which I use all the time, is when you’re in the airplane and there’s a lack of oxygen, the oxygen mask comes down. You’re supposed to help yourself first. You have to survive first in order to be able to help others.
The reason it’s all about me is that, through understanding myself and trying to be completely honest with myself, this is how I can be helpful to others and can be completely understanding and honest to others. In that sense, as an artist, you have to completely clear your mind of others. It’s all about your own experience at the moment without any other voices.
When you come out of school the biggest voices in your head are your mentors and your teachers that you respect the most. When you go to work you’re always hearing them and trying to satisfy them. Then it’s your loved ones, your family members. But you have to get rid of all those voices. In a sense, it is a very selfish act, but it’s a selfish, genuine, honest act. Within that, I can be of help to others.
RW: The act is—would want to expand that word “act” to the word “search”?
HT: Yes. It’s a search.
RW: So is the artist a person called to a special kind of search?
HT: I think so. I was talking with a few friends a couple of nights ago and this thing dawned on me. There has always been this notion that artists are always ahead of their time and understood only in the next generation, but the thing is, actually, I think that’s not true. The artist is in the time. Everybody else is behind because everybody is living the life of the previous generation. So the artist can see the moment, and can realize what is wrong with the culture—see what’s needed at the time. But sadly, most people can’t follow that.
RW: Well, following that thought, your work is obviously not political, so if you can “see what’s wrong” how does your work relate to that?
HT: Well, you talked about everything being exterior, that everything is about being outside of yourself. So there is no self-understanding. People are extremely afraid of themselves. Nobody wants to be alone. I cherish being alone and spending time with myself.
Kids are always bored. They always want to be entertained. I think those are huge problems. In the political sense, I think most of the problems stem from that. If you were in touch with yourself, you would have respect for yourself, and you’d end up having respect for others.
We wouldn’t have wars. Maybe this is a very naïve way of looking at it, but I think that making people look at themselves, they wouldn’t become involved in all these other activities of harm.
But my work is not political because I don’t believe in ideas. If I was political, I’d only believe in one way and, if I’m really honest with myself, within a day or so I will see that my idea is completely wrong and doesn’t hold up anymore. So it’s important for me to go through the bare bones of things. I’m not interested in human drama anymore. When you deal with those issues, it’s like putting a bandage on things and trying to make people feel better for the moment. Somebody is paying attention to their issue for the moment. But, to me, those issues are sort of superficial.
RW: This is a word I’m not accustomed to running across in discussions with artists, and I want to use it. It’s the word consciousness. Is this a word that resonates for you in your process of artmaking?
HT: [pauses…] Yes, in the sense of just being aware and conscious of my actions in the moment. I think there is a voice inside and I guess maybe you call it your consciousness. It tells you what is right and wrong. I don’t know if you’re referring to that consciousness.
RW: I’m leaving it open…
HT: Rightness has always been important to me. And I don’t know what that means. Consciousness perhaps, to me, is the same thing. There is a sense of rightness that I think maybe is in all of us. I don’t think anyone is born bad. It’s just circumstances that make us one way or the other—and, again, not paying attention.
I think if you pay attention and you’re genuine to yourself, then you are conscious of your surrounding and others, and you act according to that. It could be, again, very naïve, but I think you always know when you’re doing wrong. In a sense, I always try to be right to the best of my ability.
RW: It occurs to me that the word “consciousness” relates to the word “conscience.” The two are almost the same word. I don’t mean to use this word conscience in a heavy-handed, let’s say, sort of Roman Catholic way, although I don’t mean to pick on Roman Catholics.
HT: I was speaking to somebody and I mentioned the fact that I think I am religious in a lot of ways, just because of my morality. She said that religion has no monopoly on morality. That’s not a Catholic thing. That’s a human thing. We’re all born with it.
RW: Well, it occurs to me that consciousness would be an important part of conscience, because there seem to be a lot of people who are absolutely certain that they are right and, on the basis of these convictions, a lot of people end up dead. But does that relate to conscience or does that relate to dogma? We seem to be getting far afield, but what’s the relationship of consciousness to knowing what is right?
HT: You know, I don’t think people are so blind to their actions. Again, maybe I’m just very naïve, but I think when you put your head down to go to bed, and go through your daily activities, I don’t see how you could be completely blind to your actions and the outcome of your actions. Ultimately, I don’t see how anybody can justify killing for any reason. But maybe I’m being very naïve.
RW: Obviously people justify it all the time. We know that.
HT: Yes. But see, I think all those people are extremely outside of themselves. And again, they’re working for ideas. The idea is right or wrong, you know. I try not to go there. For me, it’s not about an idea.
RW: Well let’s leave this. What about the word, attention? Obviously when you’re doing your work, there is a great deal of attention required.
HT: Right. Well basically, if you’re not paying attention, you’re not seeing anything. Attention is also about respect. You know, when it comes to the work, it’s almost a devotion to what you are doing and to the materials you are using.
RW: There’s something about coming into a studio and making work. How to put it? I suggest, based on my own experience, that a great deal of the time I’m sort of on automatic pilot. I’m going through my day, but in a way, without really being very attentive.
RW: You respond to that.
HT: I think that’s a very difficult thing. We hardly ever have a real experience. It’s a little easier being an artist, working on your own, and being in a similar type of a space all of the time, and being involved with the material.
That physicality is important. When you’re doing something and you’re paying attention to that, everything comes together and you’re more in the moment. Whereas when you have to run these errands during the day, you’re not really paying attention. It’s very difficult. Ultimately art, to me, is the art of living. It’s how you live your life, minute by minute. Again, doing it by meditation, you know, washing the dishes—I do play these games with myself every time I go to wash the dishes. Each time I think there is more to learn in how to wash the dishes. Then it becomes very satisfying, because you’re learning from it and you’re engaged with it. And for me, it’s the only time nobody bugs me, and the kids leave me alone.
The same pile of dishes could be a burden, when you have to do them and you aren’t engaged. It’s terrible. You go to the office and it’s the same thing. It’s a burden when you don’t really engage with what you do.
So it’s not so much what it is. Being an artist is a little easier, I think. You’re allowed to be in that space of involvement with much less expectation. There was a time when I could really come to my studio and start working on a piece, and I could really see myself coming back to myself. It was very satisfying. Now it’s a little bit harder with my life becoming more complicated with family and kids and schedules. Still it’s a time that I cherish.
RW: I think that’s well said. And I’m intrigued by what you said, “We hardly ever have a real experience.” Would you say more about that?
HT: I don’t think we ever come to anything empty. There’s always something we bring to it. I think my own experiences are fine to bring to the table, but when it comes with other people’s experiences and other concerns, I’m not really being completely there. I think the only way to really achieve that is by a long period of meditation where you’re not obligated to anything other than just paying attention to yourself and not having to make any kind of physical activity other than paying attention. You sort of become completely empty.
RW: Does this happen in your art practice?
HT: No. To an extent, yes. I try to have as close as possible to a true experience. But when I’m here in the studio, I’m not free from things. I still have to function in order to survive. All those things become part of my consciousness. So I am pulled out of the present. I am pulled out.
I try to be genuine in what I do. It allows me to be more in the present and have that type of experience, but it’s never empty. But then again, I’m a human being. I don’t know if we’re capable of being completely empty all of the time.
RW: Well I want to go back to something we were talking about earlier. When you’ve completed a piece of work and something makes a judgment that this is a piece that’s finished, and that’s one that you’re keeping, what is the nature of its being finished and acceptable? Acceptable to what? What is this inner acceptability consist of?
HT: That’s a difficult thing for me to answer, since I’m not a viewer of my work…
RW: But you’re a maker of your work.
HT: But again the work, being process oriented, even though I come upon it intuitively, it becomes a system that I have to continue. It’s not something that happens in that split second, and it’s complete. So when I start working and there are these little pieces of wood I glue on to make little windows on a piece of plywood and then I try to fill it in with grout and I sand it, it’s complete when the initial inspiration has been achieved. It’s not me really dictating what the end is going to be.
RW: Alright. Could you say something about inspiration?
HT: I think inspiration is an idea without really coming up with an idea. Suddenly you become a medium, and there are things that get channeled through you. Again, I don’t know what they are. I don’t know why I do what I do, but I’ve been doing it for the past twelve or thirteen years, continuously. Inspiration is believing—in what, I don’t know.
RW: Just for the record, when did you first start doing artwork? You’re 44, you said? I’m assuming your history with art goes back further.
HT: It does, but there is a huge gap. As a child I always did a lot of drawing and was very interested but, culturally, it was not something to pursue. My family didn’t support me in that.
RW: Where did you grow up?
HT: In Iran, in Mashhad. I moved here when I was thirteen and went straight to high school. In high school, I took an art class the three years I was there, but in college, I didn’t take any art classes. As a foreign student, everything was expensive, and I was not pursuing an art career. It wasn’t anything that crossed my mind, but every six months or so, I’d always come up with a project for myself and make something, not really thinking anything of it.
I got a degree in construction management and I ended up doing a lot of construction work for years. Then I started working with a mechanical engineer. He trained me as a mechanical engineer. While I was working with him, or maybe a little prior to that, I started doing these little doodles with ink on paper. They were nonsense things. I came up with a vocabulary of a few different ways of making marks or shapes, diamond shapes or cubes and some of t-form that connected them together.
I’d start at one point and usually it would become some sort of recognizable shape, a bird or something. I had a friend and she started collecting them and framing them and putting them up. That kind of made me see that there was some value in what I was doing. Then I came across a book by the Austrian printmaker, Hundertwasser. Just flipping through that book was a big inspiration for me. All of the sudden I realized that this world that he had created, I wanted that for myself. So I took a printmaking class. This was in my twenties.
So for a good ten years or so I hadn’t really done any art. Then I started printmaking, became interested in painting. A friend’s sister was in town and she asked me, have you ever thought of going to art school? I hadn’t, but that put the idea in my mind. I wasn’t really happy with my life and what I was doing, so I tried a few schools and I got into the Art Institute. I quit my job and came out here at the end of 1992.
My last semester, I did the exchange program and went to Prague for a semester. While I was there, it was like a big meditation for me. I was living in a place where I didn’t speak the language. It was not a very welcoming place for a foreigner, at least for me. So there was a lot of soul searching and looking for meaning. It was there that I realized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I came back, quit the job and I’ve been in the studio for thirteen years doing this every day.
It wasn’t important for me to be an artist. It’s been more of a calling than me deciding. I had a hard time calling myself an artist until maybe two or three years ago. It’s just something I feel that I need to do.
RW: Since it’s impossible not to associate you with Agnes Martin, I wonder if you’d like to say anything about Agnes Martin and her work or her thought, as relates to you.
HT: Both have been really important to me. Her writing, and her work were a major influence on me. Earlier I did figurative work and I came across her work and it was something I had no interest in at all. But again, it carried some sort of truth that penetrated me. It affected me to the point that I abandoned what I did before to pursue this non-representational work.
Our work is different in many ways. She always called herself an abstract expressionist. So expression was always important to her, but her expression was so subtle. The words for what she did, I think she mentioned somewhere that what she was trying to express was innocence. So it wasn’t a bold expression of ego. A lot of her works are landscapes. Composition was a very big thing for her. I may be off.
For me, expression is not important. I have moved further and further away from any kind of gestural mark making because I don’t want to interfere with the viewer’s experience at all. I want it to be as empty as possible of my own feelings. And if there is any feeling transmitted I hope it is a basic human sense or feeling, rather than what I feel at the moment, happy or sad. I try to keep that out of it.
I see her work dealing with those things also, but I think in a different way. As you know, I had the opportunity to spend a little bit of time with her. This is something I will always cherish. She is a very dear person to me even though I hardly knew her.
RW: Sometimes these small meetings can be very important.
HT: Yes. A good friend says that Tom Marioni talks about how an artist needs a couple of pats on the back every year to keep going. Being with Agnes Martin was a big pat on the back. It’s hard to keep a level head, being an artist—especially if you’re doing something that comes from you, and if you’re trying to be very genuine. Again, doing something small, as I do, there are times that I doubt myself. I ask, is this really important? Why am I putting so much energy and time into this? And also suffering and making my family suffer, for financial reasons. Then to have someone like her—or other people who have a good sense of seeing things—have respect for what I do, it feels that I’m on the right track.