He: For someone who claims not to be religious, you speak in a way that sounds very religious to me. You said to me once that you wanted to make work that might be confusing right now but becomes clearer as viewers move from one work to the next or see one show and then another later. I understood this to mean that clarity would not be emerging from a formalist dialog or affirmation of aesthetic choices but from the revelation of an underlying spiritual search. The implication is that this larger connection between the works unfolds in time, and probably not only for the viewer, but for you as well.
As I listen to him I feel he understands everything I have done. And yet, I am suspect of his argument and I am not convinced by his conclusion. But to have a religious debate with Thomas is useless. He is too good at it. It is an area in which I am not prepared to challenge him. His secret weapon in any argument is himself and his life. Luckily, he never brings them up.
I: The strengths and limitations of an artist become apparent over time.
He: And yet, it seems that each new series you do brings some innovations but continues in the same register.
I: I think that, so far, I stay in the same room. I clean up the room and start again, and with each subsequent pass the room becomes more sparse and the activity more difficult. There’s some renouncement of the world in this process. I think it is in some ways similar to what you have chosen to do with your life. As time goes on, I feel that there are fewer and fewer things that satisfy me in my own work. Its sparseness isn’t a conscious decision about being restrained or reductive.
He: What you have renounced stays within you as a source of longing?
I: Sometimes. I often need to go back to the work to understand the reason I have given up things.
He: The question of renouncement makes me wonder what was there, in the work, in the first place. Do you eliminate less essential elements in the process of painting, or do you eliminate or cover what may be too essential and therefore cannot be given?
I: I think both considerations take place.
What’s essential is that which I do not understand but which I am capable of appreciating as true. In mathematics, I would say that I recognize the answer but I do not know how to arrive at it. In physics I would say that I observe a quantity, say temperature, but I do not understand the dynamics that have led to it.
He: If you are after something that can be revealed only in the work, is it possible to have two versions of a painting? Maybe I’m trying to understand if studies rob authenticity from a work of art?
I: In some ways they do. My writings and poems are not studies, only a few times have I done two versions of anything in the way it’s customary with a study. The exceptions are my photographs, which are often extremely well planned. I usually make watercolors and Polaroids in order to resolve technical details. Photographs suspend a shadow in film, so studies don’t undermine or misrepresent what is essential because with photographs there is nothing until there is something. They’re different from paintings.
He: The way you speak of your work, its foundations and the ideas that motivate you, seem to be antagonistic to the gallery-museum system. How do you resolve the contradictions between your work and the marketplace?
I: I don’t try to resolve them. They’re there and I try to keep my work on one side and the art world on another. The way I make a living with my work is similar to the way you do with your orchard. Winter comes and you struggle to keep the frost away from the crop, summer comes and water is scarce. Each avocado, like each artwork, contains sacrifice, effort and hope and each sale is utilitarian.
He: Do you like the environment in which your work moves once it leaves your studio?
I: Well, I try to be careful with what happens to my work. There are very few people who are interested in art.
He: Could your attitude be interpreted as hypocritical or self-serving?
I: It could, but what can I do about that? I’m thankful that I can make a living doing my work.
Carmel is in the rear-view mirror.
We come to a large field surrounded by poplars. The smell of manure and garlic takes over our noses, our clothes, our biscuits and even the leather on the dashboard. It is the price we pay for enjoying the cool air that comes through the open windows.
A lovesick DJ in a small room somewhere on the central coast is mounting his tears on radio waves and the electronic handkerchief in Thomas’s truck soaks them in. First Lefty Frizzel’s “Long Black Veil” and now Johnny Cash’s “Big River.” Thomas and I listen without talking. When the song is over he asks another question.
He: When Duchamp opposed the practice of drawing and painting as a senseless glorification of the hand and of not much else, it seemed, initially, a good thing as an opposition to visual seduction or trickery without intellectual value. But this opposition might have led to the shrinking of the horizon in art, a shrinking of ambition, by positing a split between intellect and sense perception, or intellect and feeling. You don’t seem to believe in this split. But why is it so prevalent in contemporary art?
I: Maybe because it’s hard to resolve this split in a truly satisfying way.
He: I think many of the problems arise first in language. The way we speak about things has a way of inserting splits and dualities where there are none.
I: Yes. For some things our use of language is too sloppy and for others language itself is imprecise.
He: Does the language of science help art theory to be more precise?
I: It’s difficult to speak in general about this because there are good theorists as well as bad ones. The language of art theory emulates the sciences in an effort to create distance, isolate variables, and present the information in a rigorous manner, but it also functions as a stamp of authority with the pretension of analysis, aloofness and rigor.
The words disappear through the window as we drive along the 17-mile drive. Oaks and birches embrace the road winding through this shady canyon. Although there seems to be no arrangement or order to these trees, I know there is one. A few years back I looked out from an airplane’s window and noticed how trees in the mountains along the California Coast faithfully follow the flow of water. As the sun, filtering intermittently through the leaves, comes into our cabin, I wonder if our growth also follows some order. One which is, perhaps, not immediately apparent.
In the midst of this wilderness, a thin man opens the metal gate of a big international-style mansion. Then I see a Mediterranean villa, then a Southwestern estate and so on, until I realize that this road has become the main street of a gated community. These are spec homes. It’s easy to figure that out: all the houses have names like “Casa del Mar,” “Hacienda del Oceano” or “Villa de las Flores.”
It’s hard for me to let go of this topic of art specialists. It concerns me because I feel that it is there, in the specialist pit, that many conflicts and compromises begin and end.
The problem that I have with some curators, academics and other art experts is not a personal one. They haven’t treated me poorly. But should that matter when their dogmatism and dishonesty have trampled on many things I value? Is it a distraction to spend my time arguing these points? I change my answers to these questions often. The majority of the time, I feel that my battle affirms what I should be doing with my work, and perhaps creates some options for others. Other days I feel that it is useless and the best thing would be to remove myself entirely.
The red light brings me back to the road.
There is a deer-crossing sign to my left. I find it hard to imagine that deer live this close to the beach.
We take a smaller road with a barbed-wire fence on either side. The fence on the left is covered in Morning Glory but the one on the right is bare. I would have thought that the plants would have found a way to cross the road.
Thomas is back. He is rearranging his papers and although I don’t tell him about the Morning Glory, I decide to interrupt him with some other thoughts.
I: For many art specialists it’s very exciting to research and promote an artwork that converges with whatever is fashionable at the time.
He: Perhaps you’re trivializing their efforts.
I: I don’t think I am.
He: But if you understand the arguments of subjectivism and relativism, how do you take decisive actions? Any person who is intelligent, educated and non-dogmatic knows that stating a position is difficult and that making distinctions in the face of assumptions and extrapolations without the benefit of “the-creed-of-my-specific-group” is very risky.
I: Yes. But it’s a mistake not to act, and to talk too much about the merit of not acting. It’s also a mistake to undermine anyone who acts or to think that talking is the same thing as doing.
He: Our academic training is partly to blame for the last mistake you mention, because it stresses immediate intellectual engagement above all else, especially above action.
I: That’s a consequence of the false duality of thought and emotion. It separates two parts that need to co-exist if someone is going to take risks.
He: I think instinct is also involved. Most people who would characterize themselves as educated or cultured suppress instinctive reactions. They would rather engage intellectually with what they encounter, as if the emotional and physical impact of a work of art were a less important, inferior, or even embarrassing manifestation. I think it’s a mistake to be afraid of spiritual and emotional engagement. We should accept that there are different ways of knowing, and that knowledge comes through the soul and the heart as well as through the mind.
Thomas’s expression is excited but his tone is deliberate and calm. He points at a postcard of “Laura” by Giorgione that is glued to his notebook and continues.
He: This work of art is apprehended through the feelings as well as through the senses. Emotional numbness disables here as definitely as blindness. I’m not resting anything on the distinction between emotion and other elements of knowing, but rather insisting that emotion belongs with them. In aesthetic experience, emotion, positive or negative, is a mode of sensitivity to a work.
As he finishes the sentence we come to an open stretch where the land is embroidered around dozens of small salt-water ponds. Their silver ripples and patches of kelp remind me of antique lace. As I look around I notice that everything here is under the rule of the wind, which has molded with historic patience the cypress trees until each trunk is clear of bark and its branches stretch away from the ocean.
I tell Thomas that I want to stop. We park on a small area of gravel. It feels good to stop. I walk a few feet and take a deep breath of the cold, wet air. It smells of salt and death; decomposing crabs, swollen fish and rotting algae. I face the ocean for so long that I feel the cold deep inside the bones of my face. After a while, I think of the trees again and get back in the truck.
He: What do you like the most about being a parent?
I am surprised by how perceptive he is. I was just thinking about the same question. It came to me as I looked at the boundary between the ocean and the sky. I thought of someone in the future pulling her car onto the side of the road and staring at the horizon and thinking of the past.
I: The opportunity to see the beginning of someone’s life. I can sit for hours looking at Gabriela and watching her discover the world. When she sees a piece of lint far away on the floor, crawls to it, and with her little index finger picks it up from the ground, I’m reminded of true marvel. It’s also wonderful to see how she gets to know Alex and me. And a hug from Gabriela softens all the sharp edges in me.
He: Has fatherhood affected your work?
I: Of course. There’s nothing in my life that has stressed more the question of impermanence and love than having a child. Also, knowing that my daughter may look at my work someday makes me work even harder.
I grab a bottle of water from the bag and drink as if I were drinking to forget. Thomas is drawing some diagrams on his notebook. Without words I can hear the air coming through the window and the engine.
Now I hear him flipping pages. I see a newspaper article that he has glued over some notes.
He: I wanted to discuss this clipping with you. The critic who wrote it says that paintings need to shed the burden of myth and the personal instance. What do you think about that?
I: It’s an intellectually sexy idea. But it hides a fear of engaging the human condition. I’m not interested in doing anything that leaves me in the studio to cleanse my preferences from the experience of living. Without the roots of life why should art exist at all? I sometimes see my students attempt to cleanse their work of themselves. Which is the reason why the making of art is so meaningless to many of them.
He: Do you try to suppress your preferences when you teach in order to be a more objective teacher?
I: I don’t suppress my preferences but I don’t make them public either. It’s important that the students find their own way. It’s better that they get lost and that they try to find their way somewhere without my preferences and prejudices.
He: We were talking about the cultural elite and academia. How do you reconcile your criticisms of them with your own academic position at a prestigious institution?
I: I’m definitely out of the loop—my ideas are different from what’s most commonly heard. I think that the artists in academia, even those who support the establishment, count for very little in the current battle for control of the future of art and art history. I think that very few can teach successfully in this environment and I don’t think I’m one of them.
He: Is teaching important to you?
I: It is. I get a lot of enjoyment from the idealism and excitement of the students. Many of them have great ambition and sincerity. I respect them a great deal.
He: And they place a lot of trust in you.
I: Yes, which makes the act of teaching one of great responsibility. And teaching art, especially painting, is difficult because it seems that many of the limitations that the students need to overcome cannot be addressed within the university.
He: Where should they be addressed?
I: A great painting depends less on knowledge of technical facts than on interior life, capacity for risk and critical acumen. Addressing these presents great challenges, of course, that only the serious students are willing to accept.
He: How do you know if someone is serious?
I: Most of the time she lets you know. But there are surprises.
I guess this satisfies Thomas because he is no longer interested in what I have to say, instead he is looking at the white smoke from two tall chimneys. The emptiness of this area and the chimneys remind me of a De Chirico painting.
For people like me who are not pleased with the condition of the art world, teaching is a great way to try to make a difference. Not that teaching should be a way to replicate one’s prejudices and create ideological clones. The only dogma that I wanted to pass on was my revulsion towards compromise and conformity. But I am sure that many others seeped through.
Most universities see the arts as a civilized offering mostly intended to round up the future doctors, engineers, lawyers and scientists. I think it would be better not to have art in universities if all we can encourage is dilettantism. The experience of art is the antithesis of dabbling. Instead, it demands a surrender to the medium, struggle to eliminate conventions and critical engagement with the work. There is no short cut, no getting-a-flavor. But most institutions are too entrenched in academics and too suspicious of the merits of art to encourage a higher level of involvement from the students. Art departments often accept that only under these conditions are they allowed to be part of the university.
I have been teaching college for ten years and that’s too long. This year I am stopping. A good artist-teacher is an animal with a short lifespan. If he tries to extend it too long, he can only do so by becoming a teacher that dabbles in art or an artist that dabbles in teaching. Even the last type is very rare. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the institution itself with its need for the artist to get along with art historians, other artists and the administration. It is very rare to find an artist that has had a long career in the university and who still is bold and significant.
A second ago I was thinking that my experience of teaching has been disappointing. I was counting numbers. But the teaching of art is not about numbers.
My students have been intelligent, academically gifted and capable of understanding post-structuralism and mathematics with ease. But courage, desire, risk and belief have been more scarce. A few dozen students took the difficult road of honest work. Most of them gave up after a while. But a few continue to struggle despite many failures and very little rewards. These are the ones we need.
Return to part 6
Continue to part 8