Interview with Painter Michael Beck: by Razi Mizrahi
by Razi Mizrahi,
Sunday In The Park, oil on canvas
Sometimes life gives us with a chance to reconnect with a harmony once heard as a child and, as an adult, explore variations that the mature self can hear and appreciate. Reconnecting with Oakland (CA) painter Michael Beck, a long-time family friend, has been just such an experience for me.
Michael was a teacher at my mother’s preschool more than four decades ago, when I was a child. Over the years, I enjoyed glimpses of Beck’s work as his career and vision developed through reports from family and friends, and more recently through his occasional email updates. Prompted by a visit to Michael’s studio in Oakland, CA, with my twin daughters who are themselves motivated by artistic impulses, I began to wonder about Michael’s artistic evolution and how his personal development influenced his emergence as an artist—and vice versa.
A connection to what is real is at the heart of Beck’s single-object still lifes—objects that range from quaint to precious, timeless to anachronistic, simple to ornate. Beck’s photorealist paintings are a kind of archaeological dig into Americana; he paints bright red toy cars; child-sized wooden horses on wheels; steam irons; baby carriages; old bicycles. His work illustrates our memories of daily life in the not-too-distant past by rendering in stunning hues the ordinary household items we once took for granted. Light and shadow are as vibrant in his paintings as the objects themselves, and the life-giving quality of his paint makes it almost possible for the viewer to feel the objects again. Beck's work gives visual expression to our longing for “simpler times,” whatever personal history that phrase might evoke for each of us.
Razi Mizrahi: You’ve identified the beginning of your professional career as your graduation from the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) when you were 30. What were you doing before this point, and what turned your attention to a career in art?
Michael Beck: I moved to the Bay Area in 1962, at the tail end of the Beat movement. Like many others in San Francisco, my day job was in offices, but my off hours were immersed in the music, drugs, and social activism of the times. I lived with the Beatniks in North Beach, the hippies in the Haight. I was enrolled at Merritt College in Oakland when the Black Panther Party was forming. I lived in Berkeley during the occupation of the National Guard. [In 1969, protests over what came to be known as People's Park, a city block at Dwight Way and Haste Street in Berkeley, prompted then Governor Ronald Reagan to call in the National Guard. The protests represented a larger conflict between the Univeristy, supported by conservative city representatives, and student activists supported by local residents who wanted the block to remain undeveloped. The conflict reached a culmination when 110 demonstrators were injured and one bystander was killed by police fire. The National Guard remained in Berkeley, enforcing a curfew and restrictions on public gatherings, until the middle of June.]
I emigrated to Canada during the Viet Nam war. I spent a year in Europe. Through all those years, I dabbled in freelance graphic design and architectural drafting, some drawing, and even an art class at Merritt College. Being an artist was always there in the fringe of my mind. In 1971, I decided to try art school to see if maybe I did have some talent for art.
RM: And, you did—rather early and unequivocally in your schooling.
MB: In my third semester I entered my fifth painting, Homage to Horace, into a competition for the Phelan Award, which is administered by the San Francisco Foundation of Art and is restricted to artists born in California. The jurors that year were Wayne Thiebaud and June Livingston [then curator of the L.A. County Museum]. I was awarded first prize. The painting was shown at the Oakland Museum and was purchased by the S.F. Foundation for their collection of Phelan Award winners. The year was 1973. I completed my fourth semester at CCAC then withdrew to focus on my painting and life. I was already represented by two galleries: one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles.
RM: Your work falls in the photorealist genre. What subjects were you painting at that time?
MB: The scope of my work has been varied. It’s always been photorealistic. In the early years of Photorealism, an artist was distinguished by his subject matter. It seemed that most people were totally immersed in an appreciation of abstract painting and could not discern the subtle differences in paint application by the realists. I became known for my second story views of urban scenes, combining the geometry of rooftops and telephone wires with the organic contrast of treetops and shrubbery Those large format oil paintings took months to complete.
RM: The desire to finish school caught up with you eventually, though.
MB: Yes. In 1981 I went back to CCAC to complete my Bachelor’s, but because of my advanced stature in the art world, I was put into the Master’s program. Three years later, I had my MFA—with high distinction.
RM: Mazel tov! And the gallery successes continued as well.
MB: Thank you, and yes, shortly after that I was accepted into the Tatistcheff Gallery [New York] until 2004, and I'm now represented Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Santa Monica.
RM: Was there an “Aha!” moment in your childhood, as many artists have described, or a particular experience that became a transformative event?
MB: A little of both, actually. Childhood in the 40s was much different than it is today. My family was poor. We lived in a federal housing project. My “art” materials were limited to pencils, crayons, and coloring books. I didn’t know there was anything else available. There was no television. We weren’t exposed to the barrage of advertising. The Sears catalog was our only glimpse of the world outside my family and relatives. My memories of that catalog are from the third grade, when I was most interested in sneaking a look at the bra and girdle section! Then, in first grade, I had my first experience with paint. There were several easels with blanks sheets of paper and a row of tempura paints with brushes. The teacher explained that we would each have a turn to paint a picture. I was in a panic because I didn’t have any idea what was to be done with those materials. Fortunately, I was not one of the first to be called and was able to observe what a few other children did. Several made pictures of a house with a tree and a sun. That seemed simple enough to imitate. I painted the house (even though we didn’t live in a house; certainly not one that had a fireplace), the tree (no tree either), the grass, the sun. The sky was tricky. All the other examples had a blue line across the top of the paper. I thought that was strange. When I looked at the blue of the sky it didn’t hang over my head. The blue went all the way to the ground. I even looked out the window to make sure. It was a different blue down where it met the ground, but it was still blue. The blue in the paint bottle wasn’t the right blue, but it was the only one available. So I painted the whole of the background blue. I painted around the sun, around the tree, around the house and all the way down to the grass. It took a long time, but I was determined to finish. When the teacher came over to move the painting to the wall for drying with the others, she actually held it up for the class to see. I was totally embarrassed and could only look at my feet. But I remember the feeling of pride for having done it “right.”
RM: A feeling to be repeated over the years.
MB: Yes, it was a first such moment. It was a first encounter with putting the paint on the paper and truly capturing what I had seen, in the deepest sense of “seeing.” The “getting it right” was as much about that accomplishment as having gained the teacher’s recognition.
But then in the third grade, I was given several paint-by-the-numbers kits for Christmas. I was fascinated by the separately colored shapes that, when completed, created a recognizable image. That’s when I first had thoughts of becoming an artist as a profession.
My exposure to fine art had been very limited if at all; my exposure to artists even less. But the artistic process took hold of me. I spent hours drawing small objects as accurately as I could. I also developed an interest in my family’s photographs and devised a light box using a Pyrex baking dish and a flashlight. I destroyed many photographs trying to trace them before my mother discovered what I was doing and put an end to that enterprise.
RM: When destroying family photographs was no longer an option, what did you turn to?
MB: San Diego at that time was a series of small towns with stretches of undeveloped land between them. The scenery along the San Diego River was particularly pastoral with farms and livestock, and for a time I considered landscape painting. But, I decided that the telephone poles and electrical wires had marred the scenes making them unacceptable as art subjects. Then I got a little discouraged. Around the same time, I saw an article in LIFE magazine—which was one the few publications that ever came into our house—on Jackson Pollock. The photographs showed him dripping and pouring paint onto the canvas. He talked about selling the result by the yard and experimenting with driving his truck over the spilled paint. I found the whole thing confusing and decided that I wouldn’t become an artist. Then came college.
My major “aha!” moment was there at CCAC. The painting instruction was limited. We were given a basic materials list, the choice of working from our imagination or from photographs, and told to “just paint.” I reflected on my experience with photos in third grade and decided to start there. I found a black and white photograph in an antique store of a young woman sitting in a booth at a diner, facing the camera directly with her arm outstretched on the table surface in front of her. The minute I started painting, I was fascinated by the paint, its color, its luminosity and how it could be mixed together and manipulated. It was an instant love affair, one that continues today.
RM: The objects you choose have the striking capacity to be seen as both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. How do you choose those objects and how do you decide how to paint them?
MB: There are several elements that are important to me in the selection of an object. The major component is synchronicity: trusting that the object‘s trajectory in time and space will cross mine. I am constantly surprised by the fortuitous aspect of these discoveries. I am always on the lookout. Not in the sense of looking for an object, but in recognizing when something in the corner of my eye spurs the thought, “What is that?” Sometimes I can’t imagine what or how this found item will translate as a subject. And some items never make it onto the stage. At other times I know immediately what I am reading in these objects. Since I don’t choose “new” objects, their age gives them a history. It’s that biography of the object that draws me in. They’re ordinary. What makes them extraordinary is shining a light on them—literally and figuratively—presenting them like a celebrity.
RM: Your work is representative of the photorealist genre. Do you have any resistance to that categorization?
MB: Definitely not. I make no apologies for that. The photograph is a tool. It has been an integral part of realist art for centuries, since the invention of the camera obscura. Common criticism is that it makes it easier to arrive at a representation. But our history is replete with inventions that have made our existence easier. I don’t make my own brushes or grind my own paint pigments. Using a photographic reference actually makes it harder to engage the modern viewer. We are constantly bombarded by photographic images. A major component of reading a magazine is flipping through the pages, passing by all the images but a few that catch our individual attention. So we are more used to dismissing images than stopping to inspect them. What I enjoy about using the photograph is getting down into it and searching for color. At times I am just sensing that something is there on the edge and I have to go even further into the photograph’s detail to find that hint of turquoise, gold, red, etc. It may only be 1/32 of an inch along the rim of a color. That act of recording is a process of “seeing into the object,” and it is journalistic in nature. I look at the completed painting as a topographical map of that journey, though few viewers actually get down to experience I have had. I use the photograph more completely than most, I think. I believe that most artists use it more as a general reference.
RM: When I used to draw with charcoal, that is how I used it.
MB: I get down to the “grain” level of the photographic paper. I don’t feel that I'm looking at reality at that point.
RM: Ironic, since the photograph in a basic sense captures reality in a direct way.
MB: I appreciate the ability of the camera to capture a moment. That sensation of “moment” is what I am striving for in the painting.
RM: The objects you recreate in your paintings are not objects we would notice necessarily. They have a kind of ordinariness about them—in their function, in the context in which they would be used in our daily lives. Certainly they are not the kind of thing one would typically photograph to memorialize them. But in your work, they become noticeable and precious. They become exhilarating to notice, actually. They come alive with light and color in a way that we cannot see when they are, or were—objects in the home, for instance. Can you help us make sense of the way you experience painting as a photorealist?
MB: The act of painting is the same no matter what your avenue of approach. The reference considered, whether imaginary or concrete, still requires that the painter mix a color and apply it to the canvas. It is the actual moment of the paint hitting the canvas that a painter lives for. That is where our vision lies and the creation happens. Everything leads up to that moment. And it is the sensation of that moment that is our addiction.
R. G. Collingwood, an English philosopher, wrote a book called The Principles of Art in the 1920s. He examines all the elements that are thought to be inherent in a work of art. His premise is that all the aspects must be held simultaneously by the artist while in the act of creating. And if he succeeds, the magic of that moment is transferred into the work to be experienced by others, who experience the work after it is finished.
The magic of the moment is the state that all artists talk about as experiencing while they are working: the state where the rest of the world seems to disappear, and it is just the artist and the piece. It is the same experience of being one with the universe that is described by gurus of many persuasions except that we, artists, are active rather that at rest.
RM: Many artists attempt to contextualize the objects they use in their work. Often, they try to place them in new and challenging contexts to nudge the viewer to a new conceptualization of the object—Duchamp, Ernst, Man Ray come to mind. Your paintings, in a seemingly self-conscious way, remove objects from any context. They are stark and individualized. By de-contextualizing the objects, you call attention to their line and color. What’s going on in your choice of composition?
MB: I actually look at it the other way. Presenting the object without external references intensifies the question of context. The viewer is forced to search for that context within the cues of the object itself. The interaction with these objects, their surfaces and their history leads the viewer to contemplate notions of time, place, use, mortality and individuality to name a few.
RM: Partly because of your choice of light and color, the objects in your paintings seem very cheerful. Is that a conscious choice?
MB: Working with used objects can easily slide into nostalgia, particularly when they are antiques. My use of light and shadow is intended to create a darkness about the event. And scale is a very important issue to me. Each object is portrayed at its exact scale in the final painting. If the object is presented smaller, it becomes more precious. If it is larger, it takes on a more modernistic content, for example, James Rosenquist. Keeping the object at its original size reinforces the actual biography of the subject.
With miniaturizing, which is what happens when these paintings are seen in reproductions, they become more easily dismissed as cheerful photographic reproduction. Their sardonic content is dissipated. Sunday in the Park is a good example. It is a baby carriage from the 20s or 30s. Worn, red, faded canvas with a tear. Very nostalgic. Yet standing in front of the piece, because of the way the light is described, with its strong dark background and shadows, most viewers comment that they aren’t sure if the baby is dead, or alive, or missing, or . . . And they don’t want to look into the carriage to find out!
RM: And the color?
MB: The colors of the object have influence on the background and foreground colors. The important color is one that will push the object further towards the viewer. At times those choices are meant to bring thoughts of landscape to the work. Using Sunday in the Park as example again, the background green in meant to inspire a sensation of trees and forest; the gray of the foreground color to signify pathway or sidewalk.
RM: I have ascribed an ethnocentric mood to the objects in your paintings. I hope that doesn't bother you. Do you think of them as characters or does that conflict with a reductionist impulse to maintain the distance between the painter and the subject?
MB: We are all a born into a particular time and culture and are, therefore, all ethnocentric. I can only paint about my experience, given that I was born in 1943. I choose objects from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. They reflect what was available during the formative years of my life. Most manufactured items during those eras were Euro-centric, that population being the target demographic. I am of European descent. It’s an honest fit. If I were Asian or African I would most likely have a very different attraction.
It may seem odd, but I am actually not painting about the object, but about the use of the object. All the structure of the painting is meant to heighten the presence of the object, like a “character” on a stage. But I want the audience to be involved with the play, not just how the actor is clothed. I am hoping to put the viewer into the mind of the owner of the object, the thoughts they might have had while using it. I use the titles to direct the viewer towards those kinds of thoughts.
RM: More than the intensity of the colors you use in your work, the shadows of the objects seem to be telling the viewer something. They not only describe the contours of the shapes, but they seem to be saying, "I am here!" Have you thought about the way you use shadows?
MB: I love shadows. They are actually filled with light and color. There is the core color. There is also bounce color and reflected color. They can be hard or soft-edged depending upon the direction and distance of the light source. They are also very descriptive, particularly in my work, where the object is presented straight on and becomes very two-dimensional. The shadows actually describe the object as three-dimensional.
I always paint the object first, then the background. Remember my first painting experience in 1st grade! Placing my attention on the negative space and the shadows creates that sensation of importance. The background becomes as important as the subject. The viewer can feel the edge of the object being created by the painting of the background saying “I am here!” Surprisingly, the background is more technically difficult to paint than the object.
RM: You have described the objects as "archeological finds." Did you ever consider archeology or a related field as a profession?
MB: My use of “archeological” was more descriptive of early works when I was more interested in oddness and objects that weren’t easily recognized. Although as cast off objects of a previous era, they all have the aspect of archeology. But I’ve never been attracted to the tediousness of onsite excavation. I was thinking about museum presentation of archeological items when I started these single-object paintings.
RM: Do you have favorites among your paintings?
MB: I do. Sunday in the Park is one. Ahh...Fame! is another. It’s a good example of trying to get at the thoughts of the child riding on the race car. My favorites are usually the ones that feel more dark and ominous.
RM: What do you do with the original object once it has been painted?
MB: When a painting is purchased, the object is offered to the buyer. Usually, they are just interested in the painting, particularly with the larger pieces. So I have a collection gathering dust in my garage and storage unit. I’d like to sell them off but packing them up and selling them at antiques fairs seems like too much work. It would make an interesting booth though.