Lydia Dona with Phong Bui

Leading up to the few days before the installation of the painter’s new work at Michael Steinberg Fine Art, which will be on view till April 26, 2008, Lydia Dona welcomed Rail publisher Phong Bui to her TriBeCa studio to talk about her life and work.

"From Heat To Sub-Zero" (2008). Oil, acrylic, copper, metallic silver paint and enamel on canvas. 84 × 192 in. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Steinberg Fine Art.

Phong Bui (Rail): You were born in 1955 in Bucharest in Romania. At which point did your family decide to go to Israel?

Lydia Dona: Well, my father was from Belgium. He survived the Holocaust and met my mother who was a native Romanian during the war. They got married during the Communist period that came right after the Second World War. My parents were Jewish intellectuals, both physicians, so they had to get out, and they finally managed to in 1961. The only place to go was Israel. I grew up in Tel Aviv, and when I was in high school, I knew I was quite different from other kids. I was independent and had a different kind of reading of the world, and that kind of difference directed me to painting. Needless to say it was an immediate attraction, and the only thing that could make me feel justified for being alive. There was something that I felt about painting even at that young age that had some sort of existentiality for me, and I had no clue why.

Rail: So that prompted you to go to Bezalel Academy of Art?

Dona: Right, from 1973 to 1977. And it was a very fascinating time because it was a highly conceptually based school. Very much influenced by Joseph Beuys, and European Conceptualism, as well as American performance art—there was this enormous amount of awareness and self criticism, very rhetorical. I was younger than most students because I didn’t go to the army (due to a medical problem I had at that time), so I had to stand up for myself as a young painter against the grain of heavy-duty conceptualism. But because of that experience, it taught me to paint with ideas. I knew that it wasn’t enough just to make painting. That was when I went to Dusseldorf in 1977 with the hope to study with Gerhardt Richter.

Rail: Who was the chair at the time, and remained in his teaching post till 1996...

Dona: Yeah, but I didn’t really like the atmosphere there that much, because it was dominated by male painters like Jörg Immendorf, Marcus Lupertz, and a few others. So I immediately went back to Israel, worked and saved money for a year, then came to New York to study at SVA for two years. New York in 1978 was exciting. I was very lucky to be in a class that was full of very bubbly and very energetic artists like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Tim Rollins, Moira Dryer, Frank Holliday, and Tom Cugliani (who later became one of my dealers). I was coming from a conceptual background, insisting on my autonomy as a painter, then being in a school where there were people doing cartoons and graffiti like a form of anarchy. Of course I was very excited but also challenged by it at the same time.

Rail: Then you went to Hunter College for graduate school when you received an MFA in 1984...

Dona: Well, I took a little bit of a break, then went to Hunter where Ron Gorchov, Ralph Humphrey, and Jack Youngerman were teaching at the time. Ralph was very supportive of my work, while Ron was very challenging in all kinds of ways on pictorial issues of painting. He was always encouraging me not to be afraid to take it to the next step. I remember Robert Morris didn’t allow painters in his class, so some of us, in addition to having studied with Ralph and Ron, would go to Alice Aycock’s class. Also, I was able to study with Rosalind Krauss, whose classes required a lot of writing papers, and were very polemical with some of the issues that were pertinent in current discourses of art history and art criticism.

Rail: The eighties were dominated largely by Neo-Expressionist paintings. There were Germans, such as Baselitz, Kiefer, Richter, Penck, and the Italians, Clemente, Chia, Cucchi, Palladino as well as Schnabel, Fischl, Basquiat, Salle, and many others, but all of their paintings were figuratively based. But below the popular consent, there was a group of painters who were working more in the vein of what Stephen Westfall referred to as “Neo-Surrealism,” including George Condo, Jeffrey Wasserman, Kenneth Scharf, David Humphrey. However, I felt that Carroll Dunham and you were the only two painters who seemed to be less interested in the kind of narrative, lyrical, or let’s say, stationary composition. And in spite of the fact that his was invested in the simultaneity, between a variety of mark-makings, and biomorphism that looks like excremental modules, while yours were more of a collision of natural form and machinery parts, you both share a transitory aggression, very active pictorially. No?

Dona: Well, Carroll Dunham is a little bit older than me. It is, however, a very interesting observation. He belongs to the generation of Terry Winters, Elizabeth Murray, David Reed and Jonathan Lasker but in some strange way, if we’re looking back to the mid-eighties, we have to include New Image painters like Susan Rothenberg, Neil Jenney, and Robert Moskowitz who were working in between the figure and abstraction with a kind of condensation and compression, in relationship, lets say, to cartoon imagery. At that time, one of the painters who I started having a dialogue with was Peter Halley. We both were very involved in theoretical pursuit. However, he seemed to have taken it outside of the language of painting completely. He wanted to move more into the simulation space, although I could have seen that he would return to declaring himself as a painter whereas I always wanted to deal with what I could get at about all that machinery and organic information with the painterly language.

Rail: Was it during this period that your particular interest in Duchamp began?

Dona: Yes.

Rail: I assume that you had seen Duchamp’s “Large Glass,” one of his many works that belong to the Arensberg Collection the Philadelphia Museum of Art?

Dona: Absolutely. I was looking for ways to apply the image and the concept that would allow me as a maker into both involvement and disengagement at the same time. And so when I went to Philadelphia and saw “Large Glass,” I thought of it as the first painting because we can really look through it. It’s not just a painting that comes from being a window, but rather breaking the window so that we are able to look at it, not only from both sides, but also entering from the outside to the inside and likewise.

Rail: I don’t think Duchamp would have been able to make “Large Glass” without having gone through his cubist phase, whether it be “Nude Descending a Staircase,” or “The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes,” and then the whole interval leading up to that single masterpiece...

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

Dona: I agree.

Rail: Yeah. All kinds of things have been written about “Large Glass.” Whether it was thought of as a love machine, the split between the bride being crucified above and the disarray of the bachelor in his masturbatory state below, or seen as a critique of the very criticism that it inspired. For me, I’m just utterly enchanted by Duchamp’s brilliant recognition of the mysticism of chance. As told by André Breton, he once tossed a coin up into the air, and said, “Tails I leave for America, heads I stay in Paris.” Of course it was tails so he came to New York in 1915. Similarly, when the crack happened in the “Large Glass,” due to its removal from the Brooklyn Museum in 1926 (the first time it was shown), Duchamp thought of it as an element of chance that enhanced what he had already done intentionally, which accommodatingly follows the whole flow of energy in the piece as well as its composition. How do you invoke your own chance operations?

Dona: There are artists like Jeff Koons, or even Damien Hirst who took the Duchampian aspect and brought it into the continuity of his readymade. But for me, I see no difference between the crack in “Large Glass” and the drips in Pollock’s paintings. Basically, the possibility of re-using the bride or the bachelors, and operating the context of relationship that they evoke, one to the other, or one reversing the other. In the end, there is no difference between the bride and the bachelors; it’s the same. And because of this sameness, I thought I could enter into this predicament where it is not that important whether the machine is any more biological, or organic or vice versa. The only importance for me is the possibility of chance, the possibility of risk taking, and coming into it with no expectation, though knowing at the same time what to do with control and chance, mobility and fluidity, yet fucking it all up, and starting all over again.

Rail: That sounds good (laughs). How about Picabia?

Dona: I really love the glamour of his paintings. And I don’t just mean his personality. I remember when I saw his painting “Edtaonisl” at the Art Institute of Chicago; it was painted in orange, blue, yellow, violet, and other tonal colors, yet you could see the rhythm in the brush, and the kind of repetitive aspect of its movement and a feeling of monumentality. But what really struck me was how glamorous the colors looked—we’re not talking about him driving cars, and we’re not talking about how dandy Picabia was. I mean there was something that I felt in my own equation of the continuity between Paul Klee, Duchamp, Picabia, and, oddly enough, Clyfford Still.

Rail: What about Clifford Still?

Dona: It’s the frontality and monumentalness of his paintings that I admire...

Rail: A tough painter. No doubt. You know the painter Philip Pearlstein, who did a dissertation on Picabia, and to some extent, with his strong affinity with Abstract Expressionists’ allover compositions, particularly Franz Kline’s calligraphic structure, he has otherwise conceptually and perceptually conceived his figures in a machine-like configuration—I mean their deliberate lack of emotion, as if they are machine parts. Body as machine. Whereas in your work, you are using…

Dona: The machine as body, the opposite.

Rail: Yeah, and they’re dancing across the plane sometimes quite hysterically. How do you feel about Fabian Marcaccio’s paintings? He also has a strong affinity towards Abstract Expressionist space...

Dona: You saw the parallel with Carroll Dunham in my early works. But for Fabian Marcaccio, who is a little bit younger than me, I felt that he was taking a high risk in the ’90s where the physiology of gestures—an aspect which many got confused, because of his use of unorthodox materials­—reveal the alchemical complexities that the gesture implied. I admire Fabian for his analytical approach without losing the visceral and sensual feeling for spatial and material applications. Jonathan Lasker is another very significant artist for my generation who, like Fabian, knows what to do with the physicality of the material. But his concept of space is more methodically organized through a certain minimalist approach. I am drawn in my taste and appreciation to independent, obsessive artists who engage in whatever is possible in the struggle to avoid the generic.

Rail: I know that you have a great deal of interest in the writings of Guatarri and Deleuze. You’ve referred to the term “Rhizome,” which had been used by Carl Jung, as a metaphor for the invisible and underground nature of life. But for Guattari and Deleuze, it was a concept adapted as a way to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry or exit points in data representation and interpretation. So while they inject rhizome, which mutates horizontally, and species polymorphic connections, the arborescent model works with vertical and linear connections. It does make sense with your deployment of gestures, which, on one hand, are seen as a kind of writing, as in your drips. On the other hand, they take the form of mechanical structures that derive from manual books. Nevertheless, they become this visual hybrid that is full of tensions and chaos. It reminds me of Guattari’s posthumous publication Chaosophy, which includes the great essay “Balance Sheet Program for Desiring Machine.”

Dona: Not only the desiring of the machine, I also was sustaining a lot of issues of other desires: the desire to investigate and bring my interests in photography, installation, and video works into some sort of a coexistence which deals with constant questions of polyvocality, transgender, and so on. I just never think of it as either/or. I just see multiplicity as a possibility against generics. Let’s say the possibility of working with minimalism, not in a reactive way, but working with “a loaded brush,” not just as a conceptual in some sort of charged and re-sexualized way, but in order to bring them all together into painting, and create a new space. What was interesting about this was that there are millions of histories that are colliding every second as we speak. If we look at a lot of artists that are being re-discovered, like Jack Whitten, one of the things that hypnotized me about his show at P.S.1 last year was his confrontation of not only the emotional issue but the epic scale that is so convincingly structured. Not to mention his use of materials. If we look at Jack Whitten 30 years from now, everyone will look and think of that painting in plastic terminology before they refer back to the 9/11 episode. What essentially is important is how different artists carry on a dialogue among themselves so that they can all keep their work vital. Whether from the abstract paintings of Richmond Burton, Fabian Marcaccio extending the borders of his paintings on to the wall, or Cady Noland’s early scattered installation, my own pre-occupation with machinery, urban environment, and the Duchampian models has always materialized in relationship to other forms of art making. Film is also very important to me, because I think of my painting as having the same process of montage. I mean building the painting through the techniques of cutting, editing, pasting, including parts that do and don’t connect, as long as they can visually and artificially connect, etc. I’m very influenced by film noir. I’m very interested in the impact of how European filmmakers brought the question of sharp contrast into the context of the New York urban environment. I relate to the space created in film noir as a space of shadow, and a space of despair.

Rail: Like Joseph H. Lewis, Rudolf Maté…

Dona: Or Otto Preminger, and so on. If you look at the despair of the heroes in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, the actors of the ’40s embody the space between criminality, in relationship to passion, to light, in parallel to their own shadows at the same time. But you do get at the end that epic yet mysterious space. So, for me, it’s the question of how do I look at images that are generated in Pop culture, film, cartoons, and so on, and bring all those references into a complex relationship with a pictorial heritage.

Rail: David Reed also has a strong relationship to film noir.

Dona: Yes, and his is more connected to the narrative, like the way he perceives Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo as a subject in a particular moment and space. He is caught between the fluidity of the painting and its relation to the structure.

Rail: As in David’s Judy’s Bedroom and Scottie’s Bedroom.

Dona: Right.

Rail: What I also notice, having followed your work for a while now, is how your work has evolved—from the early collision of abstract/representational yet curvilinear and energetic forms floating in the middle of the picture plane in the mid to late ’80s; then there was a strong shift that took place throughout the ’90s where various gestures, including repeated patterns, different use of drips, overlay with the tension between rereading space and flatness. But at the same time, however much they’re pronouncedly set within certain geometric frameworks, they seem to get disintegrated or barely legible in their visual repertoire. Whereas the work in the last eight or nine years signals another change in direction; I mean, the first thing I see is the disappearance of the geometric structure, which allows the space to be more opened up, to become more expansive. And more importantly, the mechanomorphic elements become more robustly painted. I mean, the bold and even outlines seemed to assert a physical presence which evoke the late Léger’s paintings, the ones from a few years before his death in 1955.

Dona: I love those paintings, of course. Léger had an infinite attraction toward the juxpatosition between natural forms and mechanical elements. But also I thought of Matta’s paintings.

Rail: You mean his architectural synthesis of organic and cosmic lifeforms while still embracing illusionistic space...

Dona: Definitively.

Rail: But the last time I visited your studio in 2006, I thought the painting “The Temperature Into the Skin of Micro-Macro” was key in that it suggests a whole new conception of space, which certainly gave way to this new body of work. In other words, in addition to the use of horizontal and vertical lines, at times with slight tilt of occasional diagonals, providing a solid structure that relates to a door, or a window in relationship to the body, what is most compelling is the layered diagrammatic images of machine parts moving away from the center. They’re hovering around the edges of the painting, which allows the negative space to come forward more frontally. This aspect came to greater synthesis in the triptych “From Heat to Sub-Zero.” Could you elaborate on how and when this occurred?

Dona: Well, about two years ago, I started getting very involved with printmaking. And printmaking, as a process, requires working with printers and thinking in advance. There were a lot of things that I had to get very specific, as if I had to go through a mental rehearsal. It’s not like a painting where if you make a mark that you don’t like, you can always take it out or paint over it. I engaged in the process of silkscreen and etching, both very different and involving totally different practices. But thinking back now, having gone through and dealing with the graphic clarity which is required in printmaking, I think it definitely influenced my recent paintings. Also, working with metal plates and the printing press made me think of starkness and the dense quality of metallic paint, which I began to use in my first diptych that was exhibited in Miami Basel, prior to “From Heat to Sub-Zero.” Ever since then I’ve been thinking about ways in which I can stretch the space in a sequential frame that would embrace ruptures in my own pictorial application while being receptive to the surrounding architecture.

Rail: And it’s becoming more and more frontal like a wall. Now it makes sense why you admire Still. Anyway, we also know this is a pictorial brilliance that Jasper Johns has consistently brought to his work, whether they are iconographic images or real objects, he was always able to bring them to the frontality of the surface. And I find his recent Catenary Paintings very frightening because there is this profound void...

Dona: Yeah. Profound skepticism.

Rail: Well, that skeptical view is what separates Duchamp and Picabia from the Futurist painters.

Dona: Exactly. It’s hard not to think of their paintings without Mussolini and Fascism. I can only relate to artists who have no fear of autonomy, who are not afraid to tackle problems of great complexity. With “From Heat to Sub-Zero” I didn’t want to get too literal with its meanings, but of course it refers subconsciously to my last show, New York Confidential, which was like a secret file, or a name of a film noir. But it also has to do with 9/11. I was at ground zero myself. I mean I had no home, I had no studio, I had nothing. And it was extremely difficult for me to return to any daily routine. In any case, I was exposed for a very long time, given that my studio is really looking at Ground Zero, to this sharp light which somehow appeared in the paintings from my last show quite heavily. But now I wanted to bring another kind of light from the metal and when Richmond [Burton] saw it, he said to me that, although there was this skepticism, he felt that there was some sort of glow that came out of the painting. So on the left panel, I painted with copper oxide, in the middle with just copper, and on the right with silver metallic. What is really horrifying now is that part of New York is gone. My husband and I are shocked how Tribeca, my long-time neighborhood, is now full of Yuppies whose refrigerators are sub-zero.

Rail: Yeah. One would think that 9/11 would keep them from coming to New York. Perhaps young people want to live in fear, because they think it’s exciting.

Dona: Right. Fear is the edge that lies beyond the normalcy for most, but painting, for me, carries the urban trauma. I’m trying to figure out what actually lies between high excitement and profound despair.

Rail: I feel that way all the time. [Laughter] Anyway, as the form in your paintings becomes more reduced, so do the titles. Is that conscious or does it happen organically?

Dona: I think it happened organically. And with the installation of this show, I wanted to see how this triptych holds itself in relation to the gallery space. That is a reductive entity in itself, which participates in the sense that the viewer has to confront the work whether he or she likes it or not. Just doing another show, at this stage of my career... I don’t want to waste anybody’s time looking at the work. What’s important to me now is how I can make a painting that could confront the viewer. I hope that the singularity of this diptych would hold its own in the main space in the front. That’s the reason why all the prints are hung in the back of the gallery. I can’t help but think of how Jack Whitten’s 9/11 painting mobilized and forced me to reevaluate his work, as a trajectory of one artist’s history. The same can be said of that piece “Entrance” by Ron Gorchov that was shown at Vito Schnabel’s temporary space on Hudson Street three years ago. I just admire its sheer monumentality.

Rail: And singularity.

Dona: Yeah. And the point is that I don’t work in isolation, I work in context. I’m always curious about other artists’ or writers’ work. Recently, I saw the new work of Alex Ross whose vision is very intriguing to me. I also seem to be getting a lot of feedback from younger artists, who seem to really relate to my work without the loaded codes of history, mine or the general ones. It seems cool to me that they seem to understand it or are affected by it. The cross-disciplinary exchange is also critical for me. In the last several years, I’ve been very interested in the writings of the novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt who also has a strong invested interest in the relationship between technology and the brain, which is exactly what I’m trying to do in my painting—incorporating machinery as an environmental brain where we are caught between skepticism, despair, desire, and hopefully some optimism.


Phong Bui