In Conversation

Yvonne Jacquette with John Yau

Pier A at Battery Park III (2007). Oil on canvas. 50 by 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery NY.

In conjunction with the painter’s two on-going exhibits at Museum of The City of New York, which she shares with her late husband, the painter, filmmaker, photographer Rudy Burckhardt (February 1 to May 11, 2008) and at DC Moore Gallery (from March 26th to April 26th, 2008), Yvonne Jacquette welcomed Rail Art Editor John Yau to her loft/studio in the garment district to talk about her life and art.

John Yau (Rail): In the late sixties, you started using a sharply angled viewpoint; you were looking down at the kitchen floor, for example, and the view was always severely cropped. The paintings are slightly claustrophobic, with a tension between the inside and the outside. I think this is also true of your aerial views. Even when they’re panoramic, I become aware that there’s more outside the frame, and that it’s not the same as what’s inside. You subvert the model of the grid, and the implication that everything beyond the painting’s edges is the same.

Jacquette: It happened because I started off with the opposite angle, looking up. I was beginning to do yoga, and I had to look up at the ceiling in my loft, which was stamped tin. So I did paintings of that, and of doorways and so forth for a little while, and then suddenly it occurred to me to reverse that, and look down. When my son Tom was born, I’m standing there feeding him, and there is his baby chair, and it’s making an interesting shadow on the floor. Every year, the space between the baby and me seemed to widen. And then the view started to expand. We got a house in Maine and I started going up in airplanes.

Rail: That was in 1974. Before the aerial views, and after the interior views, there was a period when you painted the streetlights in New York. Those views are anonymous and accessible, but, in another way, they are very particular and even private.

Jacquette: Right, it’s like I’m concentrating on it. I did that with the ceilings. And then I was doing traffic signals, walking around the streets just looking up at them, and running home and making studies, and then I started working outside, standing on corners.

Rail: I didn’t realize that, I knew you did drawings.

Jacquette: I did some studies and small paintings, and then I’d do the big paintings in the studio, but I used a shopping cart as an easel, because the drug characters were so heavy on 14th Street where we lived at the time. I had to be ready to roll away. I would run around the block and come back when they were gone.

Rail: You know, I can’t think of one straight-on view in your work. It has always been at an angle, either looking up or down. And now, in this recent work, you’re also becoming more abstract, and leaving a lot out. In these works on paper, you just see lights, not the edges of the buildings.

Jacquette: Yes, the lights, but not the buildings’ solid forms.

Rail: It’s like the physical world has dissolved.

Jaquette: What you imagine is what the block of lights describes, you’ll make up what that is.

Rail: Well, the ground and the night have become one. And glowing within the ground are aggregations of colored lights. It’s both alienating and comforting; you can’t say “it’s this feeling or that.” This indeterminate zone is one of the things about your work that I’ve always found fascinating. It’s emotional, without ever announcing itself. The views are anonymous and romantic as well as lonely and isolating. What also is interesting about these new works is the brushstroke gets downplayed.

Jacquette: When I was still describing the size of buildings, when there’s much more ambient light, then I was really interested in what the brushstroke can do. But now, although I may add a little more texture to the black paintings, I really wanted to be able to read it any possible way, so the brushstroke is no longer going to be one-directional; it goes in a couple of directions but it won’t be so literal.

Rail: Right, because the brushstroke always told you that the ground was furrowed, that the traffic, street or water was going a certain way. What was interesting was that they were abstract brushstrokes that were descriptive; and they never seemed programmatic. You found that brushstroke because that was what worked, so that within any painting there are lots of different kinds of brushstrokes. But now there are no brushstrokes. The configuration of the lights, you know instantly that it’s a city or town, but you can’t say where or how far away you are. You have fewer markers.

Jacquette: I think there’s that duality about the loneliness, more so than in other city paintings. But I don’t know if they are city paintings, because everything has been transformed into a landscape. There was hardly anything at night to see, just some lights.

Rail: They were done in Maine from helicopters.

Jacquette: Yes, from the helicopters. One reason I was interested in doing them was because all these city views had many, many windows, and, after doing them for years, I thought, “This is tiresome.” It would be nice to have just a few windows, and to think about the space surrounding the building and so forth. So these views were done in deliberate opposition to what I did for twenty, thirty years. Maybe the woodcuts I did during this time showed me the way, the ones without too much detail.

Rail: But the woodcuts of the city are more structural.

Jacquette: Yes, they are more structural. You can tell where you are; they are all urban views actually. In some of the test ones, I take a little section, but mostly they’re the city. These new views are out there in the woods, except that there’s that one little highway.

Rail: Route One.

Jacquette: Ha ha, that’s right, Route One.

Rail: There’s a point on Route One on it at night, when you realize that you are in a forlorn landscape interrupted by malls and gas stations, and just past beyond them is darkness.

Jacquette: Woods, woods and woods…

Rail: It’s isolating.

Jacquette: Maybe this has to do with it. I’ve been a Buddhist for a long time and there’s a lot of teaching about emptiness, which isn’t nothingness, but fullness. You can take that in any direction you want, or need to. I’ve been interested in playing with how much is there; how much do I need to feel comfortable, or excited, or, to accept that, “OK, this pretty lonely, but that’s the way it is.”

Rail: Which is why the views are dematerialized.

Jacquette: Definitely. But you know, Rudy did these photographs, when he first came to New York, of just sidewalks, just the grain of a building’s granite base next to the sidewalk. I always was enamored of those photographs, and thought, “Maybe I can do some version of that” in a totally different way. He was close up, because he didn’t know how to get back far enough to get the scale of buildings and people. So he started slowly and tried to see where and how to go from there. In a way I’m coming at it from the other side, and trying to find a way to have a very reductive view, yet one you can wonder about, that you can imagine yourself being in, whether it’s fun or not.

Rail: At the same time, you’re letting go of the physical world. This work shares something with de Kooning’s late paintings, when he seems to abandon the bodily world .

Jacquette: I think that has to do with aging, the situation of getting dematerialized. Accepting that as the way things are. Things don’t happen the same way as they did when I was 25 (laughs). I keep trying to make my life simpler, and accept that, “Oh, there’s an equanimity here, but it isn’t necessarily exciting or, difficult, it’s just what is.”

Rail: All these were done from a helicopter. That’s also different, because you’re getting an aerial view that’s closer to the ground.

Jacquette: It’s quite low compared, well, it’s hard to compare to them the city things because it depends on what floor I’m on. I could be as low as the fifteenth floor or as high as, it used to be, like 81 at the World Trade Center or 92 or something like that. But I’d go anywhere that has a good view. Often it’s about the fortieth floor. But the helicopter is only about eight to twelve hundred feet. That’s lower than I would ever do a daytime flight.

Rail: And you had to fly with the door removed.

Jacquette: You have to if you want to get any night photography, which is the only way I can work with it because I can’t draw in the helicopter. I just have to accept that I’m strapped in, and can’t fall out, but it still feels very vulnerable.

Rail: Doesn’t it have to tilt slightly to the right?

Jacquette: Yeah, so that you get the angle.

Rail: You’re an intrepid journeyer who doesn’t go very far from home.

Jacquette: Oh, well, I don’t think I’m doing very well with it lately! [Laughs.] It feels so vulnerable out there, especially if there’s wind, and you’re so dependent on the pilot to do something and it’s hard to communicate with him because it’s noisy, and you have these big earphones. You don’t really hear much, and he can’t tell you much. It’s taking a lot of chances.

Rail: I think the vulnerability comes across in the work but not in any obvious way. For one thing, the viewers don’t quite know the angle at which they are looking. You feel like it’s an angle, but the buildings aren’t really there—so you feel exposed.

Jacquette: Yes, that’s true.

Rail: And also because the view changes. You feel like you’re looking at that row of yellow lights, but then with the other lights you feel like you’re looking down at them.

Jacquette: Well I have to tell you that sometimes I add things. For instance, one of those buildings was in the photographs that I shot, but then I’ve added some things because I wanted to use stuff from another photograph. It might alter the space a little. I just try to make it look like it could be there.

Rail: So you are playing with the space.

Jacquette: I’m compositing it, which I was doing with the city stuff too. Sometimes a lot, sometimes not. When I was in Hong Kong, I did it a huge amount. But, then, coming back to New York, it was not easy to find places I could go to, to get different views. The World Trade Center did function that way. I could go to several different heights. I worked on the same drawing from different positions, even from different buildings.

Rail: That is true in your large works; the perspective changes, even as you look over the scene and feel that it is seamless.

Jacquette: Yes, that was definitely happening, but it’s so hard to find that now, a place where you can get enough distance and angles.

Rail: Do you draw from the Empire State Building?

Jacquette: I have that drawing on the cover of Picturing New York. Some, but not all of it, came from the Empire State. It’s not really easy to start drawing there with all the tourists. But after I started one drawing I went to the management and said, “Is there any place you have that I could get in for just a couple of nights? An empty space? And particularly looking Northeast?” And I was told, “Actually, there’s a famous designer who just left, and somebody else is coming in a couple days, so before the new one comes, we will give you a key to that space.” I had three nights where I could work a lot. That was very lucky.

Rail: Isn’t it much harder to do that now, because the intense post-911 building security?

Jacquette: Yes. New York has become more problematic for people.

Rail: So you’re going to show these five works on paper, and you are going to show this triptych, which is the most abstract painting you’ve done. You can’t quite tell what’s going on.

Jacquette: I took away all the outside edges and made them black and then I added this brown color surrounding all the bright lights which I didn’t see, but I felt that I needed some way to spread the light, so I just took a chance—I thought, well, let me think of a color that might do that so I mixed up this brown and put it down and then after I’d done it, I found an old photograph that I’d taken coming in over LaGuardia and there was that brown color. I must’ve remembered it or something. So that’s how it happened.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Rail: And you believe that being a Buddhist has influenced your work?

Jacquette: You can’t say what it would be like if you hadn’t started. But I think so. I mean it’s been a long time, and I’ve been thinking about it in a lot of different ways and somehow it probably has.

Rail: I don’t want you to be literal and say, “I did this and that’s what happened as a result.”

Jacquette: Right. It becomes a part of your life. So you don’t know where it starts and stops.

Rail: Are you going to do prints from these new works?

Jacquette: No, but I’d like to. I haven’t talked to Mary Ryan about it. But it seems like they would be interesting—you’d get a great black.

Rail: Right, but wouldn’t the ground have to be made of a couple of different blacks mixed together? I mean your black never seems like it’s the same all the way across and it never becomes flat.

Jacquette: It just doesn’t feel that way.

Rail: It becomes atmospheric even though it’s solid at the same time.

Jacquette: I wonder if that’s a function of the eye—of vision, the way eyes take in things.

Rail: I think it must be. I mean it’s not like you’re playing a trick with the colors or anything.

Jacquette: When I first starting making these drawings on black paper, I did use another pastel black and worked on the surface so that you’d get glimpses of that black in between the black I was applying. Then I started to think that it seemed fussy. It seemed to be much clearer with what I was doing by just leaving it.

Rail: Well in the early paintings, with all the brushstrokes, they never feel fussy, which I think is amazing because with all that brushwork you’d think, “Oh its going to look fussy.” But it all seems necessary to what’s being conveyed.

Jacquette: What’s being described. Yeah.

Rail: But you’ve never had a retrospective of your prints because I thought about it when I was looking through your monograph, Aerial Muse.

Jacquette: Yes, there’s a catalogue raisonné of my prints at the back, but I’ve never had a retrospective. I had one small show with Mary Ryan quite a few years ago, together with Louis Lozowick.

Rail: Oh sure, the man who made the precisionist lithographs of New York in the 1920s and 30s .

Jacquette: Yeah, it was a tiny inch of a retrospective, but not really. And I haven’t had a survey show since I began the woodcuts. The prints in that show were earlier.

Rail: You keep talking about the woodcuts, which are structural and made of lines and little rectangles. Is that right?

Jacquette: Yeah, except most of the prints are bigger than this one. That’s smaller because it’s part of a diptych. Often they’re quite large, just as big as the printer can handle, like 50 inches high and 30 inches wide. There’s a lot of work in them, a lot of cutting, and correcting if necessary (laughs). I’ve been doing them for about ten years. The one with the Chrysler Building was done ten years ago. This is Cleveland; and it came out very well because of all the reflections on the river. It was done for the Cleveland Print Club and it has a lot of wiggly lines; that was really fun to cut because I had to swivel my hand.

Rail: So you like making woodcuts.

Jacquette: I love the cutting. I mean, it takes a long time. I often do it in Maine when I’m more relaxed and maybe I’ll work on it in the evening or just do a little a day. I can’t stay up in the air all the time. It’s a challenge to figure out a way to do it so it surprises me by the time the cutting is finished. Like that first one with the Chrysler Building in it. It surprised me. I try to find a way to do that if I can.

Rail: Do you know the film, Dream of Light, by Victor Erice; it is about the Spanish artists, Antonio Lopez Garcia and Marina Moreno. Most of the film shows him trying to paint the quince tree in his backyard.

Jacquette: I’ve heard of it, yes.

Rail: In the film, you see Marina working, looking through a magnifying glass and making these little lines with an etching tool. Antonio asks her if her wrist is all right. And you realize that she had to stop working on etching plates, and now she is back at it again. Just the notion of looking and then trying to get what you see onto canvas or paper.

Jacquette: That’s the way I think about Sylvia Plimack Mangold working on those trees outside, with the changes of weather, and with the same tree often or slight changes with what’s grown up behind it—

Rail: She has said that you had influenced her, that your night paintings had gotten her to do night paintings.

Jacquette: Well, I always wondered. I knew I had been doing them before and then she and Bob moved to their present place and maybe she could see something from that spot that was interesting to her.

Rail: You met in the ’60s?

Jacquette: Yes, in ’64 when Tom was born.

Rail: You were both painting interiors, right?

Jacquette: Yes, we tried to get a show together with two other women and we took photographs around to some galleries and they all said, “A women’s show, are you crazy?” We were told to add some men to it. [Laughs.]

Rail: [Laughs.] You know it’s not written about, but you both belonged to a generation which was dominated by Minimalism and Pop, and the two of you went your own way.

Jacquette: I used to think of it in those early days with those interiors or little shadow pictures that they were a kind of Minimalist Realism. But they weren’t that Minimal. So there was some little hint from looking at the Minimalists, I saw the work of Bob Mangold and so forth, but I was in a funny position because I was in Maine with all these guys—Alex Katz, Neil Welliver, Rudy Burckhardt, Rackstraw Downes, and others who you wouldn’t have heard of, and they’re all doing a kind of representation, but very different from each other. I decided that I had to find a way that was different from all of them. And it turned up by going in the airplane. It happened by accident, of course. I didn’t ever plan it, I was going to visit my parents who had just moved to California and I was in a plane with watercolors and I started to see that the clouds were amazing when you’re right in them.

Rail: And there’s that series of paintings done from an airplane window, where you include the window frame. Even though we don’t see the window anymore, it’s still really there. The view is completely specific and particular to one individual; it’s not like a public or mediated view. And at the same time, someone else could have this view. It’s not private either. It’s in this zone that we don’t seem to acknowledge, which is that there are places that are neither public nor private or they are both.

Jacquette: That’s very interesting. I never quite thought of that; and it’s amazing because the earliest book of Edwin Denby is called In Public, In Private. I hadn’t really taken it into my place of being to figure this out, but I’m glad you mentioned that.

Rail: Well his poems are like that too. You don’t feel that there’s a self insisting on this view, it’s not “I see this, so you should see this.” There’s something that says that this is here, which I think is different. It’s not that romantic “I” intruding into the scene or framing it.

Jacquette: Well that’s a big part, even before I became a Buddhist, to try to keep the ego way in the background, or get rid of it if you can, good luck! [Laughs.]

Rail: [Laughs.] You do want to get rid of it. And the other thing that seems to me is that as descriptive as these paintings are, they’re not simply descriptive. There’s something else happening, and I think that’s what keeps us looking or keeps us coming back to them. That it’s not finally the verisimilitude that holds our attention.

Jacquette: I wonder if it has to do with looking at a lot of Japanese works.

Rail: I wondered about that too, because you look at a lot of Japanese woodcuts, but mostly the classical ones, like Hiroshige, rather than later ones, like Yoshitoshi.

Jacquette: Classical view point. I mean I’m not doing close-up flower paintings, and the way the pictures are cropped and the picture plane is established.

Rail: Right, they don’t use modeling, and they get an amazing sense of space. They put one pattern or color against another to suggest something against something else? It’s very interesting because you also put one pattern, like a building, against another pattern, and it suggests depth or space. But you’re not trying to be volumetric, it’s very structural, and about color pattern against color pattern.

Jacquette: Well, it’s the color that I’ve been interested in all along. I am trying to get a whole range of warm and cool colors that can vibrate against each other because the value is so close. I don’t think that is coming from Japanese art, but that was the way I was trying to play, either the patterns or the temperature of the patterns. Now that I’m doing a lot of black work, it’s not developing so much in that direction.

Rail: And then you have these layered aerial views, where you are looking through clouds, seeing the city below.

Jacquette: That’s in New York.

Rail: You get the space between the cloud and the ground, and you don’t do it through perspective; it’s literally juxtaposition. There’s atmosphere in your work, without it being atmospheric.

Jacquette: I haven’t deliberately tried to get atmosphere, it’s true that it has to come in there, at some point, because these things aren’t really solid, but if I were really trying to get atmosphere they would be more liquid-looking, or a lot more veils of something [laughs], I don’t know.

Rail: And I realize that you have written about artists, like Georgia O’Keeffe. This was some years ago, were you writing reviews?

Jacquette: Exquisite Corpse asked me to do a book about the thirties where there were a lot of artists that I was interested in, plus photography. I had to plow my way through what photographers were doing plus the Precisionists, Charles Sheeler, and so forth. I never wrote anything else for them.

Rail: The show in the Museum of the City of New York is going to include photographs by Rudy Burckhardt and paintings by you.

Jacquette: Only New York paintings. They start right at the beginning of the night paintings, and there are few they weren’t able to get.

Rail: So, do you have another project in mind after this?

Jacquette: Colorado.

Rail: What are you going to do in Colorado?

Jacquette: I have a new partner who lives in Colorado, he’s an architect, built a gorgeous house, and there’s a studio there, and right outside his meadow is a wonderful aerial view of a little town named Lyons, Colorado, right north of Boulder, so it’s in a convenient place. I’d done some drawings there last year and when I go out this year I’m going to try to paint from the feeling of those drawings; but make a combination of this white line picture with a full-color daylight view of some of these aerial places, whether it’s going to work I don’t know yet, because I still didn’t do it, but I’m starting to mix some colors. And recently I was at the American Academy in Rome and I did some drawings of the rooftops of the classical buildings, domes and the Pantheon and those places, hedged behind a batch of trees and an orange tile roof. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that yet, whether I’ll paint from it. They seem kind of right as drawings, just from the way the pastel is on that particular color of paper I used.

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John Yau

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