On the occasion of her new exhibit Objects of Use to Me, which will be on view till February 7, 2009, the painter/writer Robert Berlind paid a visit to Harriet Shorr’s SoHo Studio to talk about the evolution of her paintings.

Dreaming of meaning

I wake to find the sky
Framed in a window pane.

Robert Berlind (Rail): Your work has followed a path from observation of everyday objects, the domestic items painted when you were at Swarthmore, to the objects placed on scarves and so forth that you painted after you came to New York, to objects that are carefully chosen for literary, mythological, or otherwise metaphorical possibilities. Could you tell us about that transition?

"After Ensor," 2007. 40 × 64 inches, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Cheryl Pelavin Fine Art, NYC.

Harriet Shorr: It happened when I was writing my book, The Artist’s Eye. I had always been rejecting the idea of content being separate from form. I never liked that distinction. You know, form and content didn’t really make much sense to me.

Rail: Is that attitude peculiar to our generation? [Shorr and I were students at the Yale School of Art in the early Sixties.]

Shorr: Yes probably…but I realized that what I was rejecting by saying that my paintings had no content was the form/content distinction itself. What I have worked out for myself is that, for me, content is subject matter and form is meaning. I realized that all these paintings have meanings, but I hadn’t been thinking about meaning. I had just been thinking that I didn’t want to be bogged down with the idea of painting containing something other than itself.

Rail: And by form you mean color, and form, and all the formal properties.

Shorr: Right, all of that. As I was writing the book, retrospectively, looking back at everything I’d done, I realized I had been trying to reduce “content,” de-emphasizing the possibilities of subject matter. But then I realized I didn’t want to do that anymore, I wanted to allow for meanings to emerge. I didn’t want to plan them. I didn’t want to think “Oh, you know, I’ll use a brick and the brick will stand for ruin.” In fact I didn’t really change very much in terms of choosing things. It was more a change of attitude, an acknowledgment that the situation was more complex than I had allowed.

Rail: So are you saying that that was always the case: that the choices were multiply determined, that they inevitably carry associations?

Shorr: Right, right. And that certain meanings are private, you know. And then the world at large assigns meanings to things. Somebody showed me a very interesting thing about Madame Bovary. Initially—I think Henry James said this—Madame Bovary or Hamlet were just characters in these works. And then suddenly they were assigned these meanings…

Rail: …culturally.

Shorr: Culturally. So the whole thing about meaning is much more fluid than content. And also when people talk about content it seems obvious to me. Students say, “Well this is really about poverty and my feelings about…Asia.” And you would look at the work and think, “No, that’s not what it means. That content isn’t there, it’s not there. It’s not manifest in any way. It’s not in the form.”

Rail: Do you experience sometimes having private meanings that you wouldn’t necessarily talk about, or you might even forget, but while you’re painting something beside formal issues is motivating you?

Shorr: Well, I had an interesting experience with that pink cup painting, in the show. [La Tasse Rose, Cést Moi]

Rail: That was a very important painting.

Shorr: I was looking at the composition after the painting was finished and the majolica dish and the blue and white bowl which flanked the pink cup on the left and right were like guardians, protecting the cup, and I thought “I am the pink cup, the dish and the bowl are protecting me.”

Rail: Guardians of the Secret! [referring to Pollock’s great 1943 painting.]

Shorr: Yes. [laughter]

Rail: That would be something that would occur to you afterward. It wouldn’t determine the placement or the form.

Shorr: No, but even though I’ve now realized that metaphor is present in all of this, I don’t want to stage it. But one thing I haven’t actually worked out: why did I paint these things so many times? I don’t think I need to go there.

Rail: The part of your process where you’re arranging the still life is determinative. Can you talk a little bit about that? I think that some of the paintings are like a stage.

"La Tasse Rose C'est Moi," 2007.40 × 60 inches, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Cheryl Pelavin Fine Art, NYC.

Shorr: Right. Apropos of that, I’m really not interested in composition, per se. I did a lot of set design in college. I applied to Yale in set design and was interviewed by Donald Oenslager, who actually told me to go home and be a painter and that set design was not a field for women. I think of composition more as blocking. When you learn how to block in theater you learn there are specific positions on stage that evoke certain feelings. The objects take on some of that emotional tone depending on where they are placed on the table, so the table is a stage of sorts. Again, I don’t consciously use that technique at all, but it’s there—an example of how form is meaning. But also, it’s just kind of an instinct. I don’t want it to look…hierarchical.

Rail: But given that, you have associations with upstage left and you put something in that spot, is it much to say that is Uncle Willy or yourself, as it was the case with Cézanne in Sydney Geist’s interpretation (his book, Interpreting Cézanne, 1988)? Even without going that far, if we think about relationships as everything saying something to everything else, and everything being equally important, then our attention moves through the picture establishing narratives. There must be some consciousness of that in the beginning. I mean you’re not doing what Renoir was supposed to have done. He said that he would compose the still life and then go to the other side to paint it.

Shorr: Although I like that quote and I often think about it, I don’t ever turn the set-up around. I think everything is equally interesting and important. So in that sense I don’t like hierarchy or rules, I don’t like rules like “don’t put it in the middle.” You know, why not? I think that I’m arranging things so that they are visually equal and the spaces between them are somehow like a field, rather then a composition.

Rail: And so the emotional valences of that are best left un-thought-about.

Shorr: Right, right. But then Jim [Jim Long, Shorr’s partner of many years] used to do this interesting exercise with the kids he was teaching out in Colorado. He would make them try to draw the pattern they saw when they closed their eyes, and then he would use that at the end of the session to try and show that the way they composed was very closely related to what their patterns were. And they would do the patterns on a piece of acetate with yellow paint, and then they would hang them up next to all the work they had done. I mean it was really interesting. But I never can do it because I don’t really have a pattern when I close my eyes!

Rail: But what we’re really talking about is the relationship between what is conscious and what is unconscious in our work. And there’s plenty of unconsciousness operating.

Shorr: Returning to the idea that subject matter is content and form is meaning. I do think that the historical moment that we were all in and the paintings we liked that weren’t representational, made us wish to disavow meanings.

Rail: That was part of the whole history of modernism, as we understood it.

Shorr: Right. We wanted to be part of that. We didn’t want people to think we were like John Koch. I remember a conversation with Irving [Sandler], and he was talking about subject matter and representation. And I said, “Well I’m a formalist,” and he laughed and said, “You can’t be a formalist and make representational paintings.” Well, there is obviously some problem in there. But I felt when I was making those big color field paintings that I was addressing color field painting. And now I’m obviously doing something else. I kept thinking that I wanted them to be—I don’t know how I could have thought this—neutral. I don’t know what I meant by that.

Rail: Content neutral.

Shorr: Content neutral. And then all I had to deal with was the paint and the color and the light.

Rail: There was a discussion recorded some place between Alex [Katz] and Paul Taylor, in which Alex said something about wanting to get rid of content and Paul Taylor said, “Yeah, I’m trying to get rid of form too.” (laughter)

Shorr: Well I really do think that it’s dumb, semantically dumb, as a way to put things: form and meaning. But I like the idea of meaning, because obviously things do have meaning, and they have meanings to you, and then they have other meanings to other people. And I had some very strange moments. I made two paintings that used these bricks, and one of them was painted in 2001 before September 11. It included bricks in water and a reflection of a statue. My friend Erica Kramer was in the studio, and I told her that after a while these paintings had come to mean ruined, in some way. And she said “Oh, this place Robert [Robert Kramer, the filmmaker who died in 2000] and I had in the country, it was a brick factory.” That kind of personal thing, and just the fact that people respond that way: I think that’s how paintings communicate. The meaning is…

Rail: The meaning to somebody.

Shorr: Right, and then culturally of course, if the paintings get to spend time in the world, that may become a bigger thing, a sort of accretion of meaning.

Rail: So, you’re actually post-modernist in that way. You mean the instability of meaning.

Shorr: Right, right. I really wish people understood that.

Rail: I want to move on to something else. Do you see your references to past art, Watteau in particular, to be invested with irony or nostalgia?

Shorr: Probably more nostalgia. Nostalgia was defined as an illness during the Civil War, because people died of it. Now we think of it as something more sentimental, but nostalgia is the longing for home, and I started making that painting [a work based on Watteau’s 1717 Embarkation for Cythera] very consciously as an escape from the war. We were gearing up for war. You know, Jim and I were very active. We went to the first march in Washington, we went to another, I mean we were marching and we belonged to Artists Against the War. We were active for the first time since Vietnam. And I thought about painting as an escape into a world of the Rococo, a style I had never even liked! And it really was a strange thing; I just woke up one day thinking about that painting. Although years earlier Sophie [painter Sophia Healy] had told me to go up to the Met because the Watteau was on loan, and I went up there and was totally unmoved. I couldn’t believe it. Then all of a sudden I was in love with this painting I had been indifferent to. So I decided it was kind of an escapist painting. Where are they going? And then I made that painting called After Cythera. I like to tease a little bit but I’m not an ironist, I don’t think.

Rail: So for that painting of Watteau the theme is the ending of a day, presumably, of love making and the participants, women in particular, are reluctant to leave. There’s already a nostalgic note within the painting itself. And there’s a reference to a golden age, that was always celebrating.

Shorr: But you know what’s really interesting, I’d looked around after I’d decided to use the painting because I was curious what people had said about it. I found a paper about Watteau’s time in which some of the aristocrats rebelled against the king’s authority. He would have these dances, very formal, ballets in which the king took part. And the Libertines, the aristocrats who were not with the king on every matter, they had their fetes champetres, which were much more informal. And so Libertinism also has a political dimension, not just sexual.

Rail: Watteau is always theatrical. There’s always a second level, an allegorical level. Your paintings are more unspokenly theatrical, but there is that element, isn’t there? How they resonate as circumstances, as moments. I mean they’re also kind of Proustian, because you’re dealing with moments of consciousness.

Shorr: When I read Proust I felt as though I had just discovered the greatest understander of consciousness. He would make articulate something that was barely even formulable…

Rail: Something that you had no idea could be put into words…

Shorr: And also he was right about how the brain does work. You know all the models that they’ve gone through; the mechanistic model, the computer model. Proust is now the man of the hour in terms of the brain and memory.

Rail: He got it right.

Shorr: Alessandra Comini said that still life was the harbinger of narrative. The way I interpreted it confirmed the notion of the emotional weight of things in different positions. You have something that you say….very Bob, a Bobism: “give permission.” You’re the first person I ever heard say that. You know, “this gives permission.” Anyway, hearing her say that sort of gave me permission to continue to ponder the meanings that are always—and this is very important—they’re always after the painting. And then, as you say, on an unconscious level, what I’ve been choosing clearly is not just because I like red and green. Although some of my paintings had very limited formal premises.

Portrait of the artist by Phong Bui.

Rail: Well, Wolf [Kahn] said something interesting. Talking about his painting, I said that I have discerned all sorts of psychological issues in certain of his paintings, and he said, the less he knows about that, the better.

Shorr: Right, I think I’ve been more open to thinking about meaning. But I’m trying to be very careful not to have that guide my selection. The other day I fell in love with this brass deer in a shop window. The reason I wanted to paint it, I thought, was because I have this fabric with leaping deer on it. And there was something so haunting about it, I mean beautiful. And then suddenly this narcissistic element appears: I realized that my name in Hebrew means deer. So I’m thinking, how could that be? Is that a coincidence that I want to paint something that’s called by my name? First a cup and now a deer?

Rail: Well, once you know that, then it’s a fact.

Shorr: As Judy Bernstein would say, “I’m fine with that.” (laughter) I agree with Wolf—you don’t need to know all this stuff.

Rail: I find the conscious decisions I make in a painting often deflect the meaning that I see arising, that I don’t want to become overpowering.

Shorr: Oh sure. Well I had an experience with that in a way when people assumed that my toy paintings were narratives, I didn’t want that. And of course it does not escape my attention that I’m painting figurines again, as I did in the Cythera show. Nancy Hagin had a very funny response to the big painting. [Shorr is referring here to Objects of Use to Me, which measures 70 by 135 inches, an array on a beach of objects she has painted before behind which is the edge of a body of water.] She was worried about what it means: what’s it about? “Mortality?” I said, “Well, why not?” But I think it’s pretty cheerful.

Rail: It depends if the tide is going in or coming out. [laughter]

Shorr: I said that to her, “This is going out.” She said “No, no, it’s a wave, it’s coming in.” But then when she saw it in the gallery she said she didn’t feel that way about it.

Rail: Would you say that the people we both relate to most closely are painters of our own generation?

Shorr: Yes, our generation.

Rail: Are we a lost generation? This might be the big question for us.

Shorr: I think that our whole visual, perceptual motif is a continuing and challenging model. It’s really not a mainstream tradition. And even Monet apparently did not religiously paint outside. And you make studies and work from them. But we have imposed this restriction on ourselves. One of the things that I’ve tried to do is to get around the limitations of directly observed still life as just objects on the table. The reflections became a way to do that, and in the earlier color-field paintings I eliminated the table/wall horizon. But adhering to direct observation is both a limitation and a frame.

Rail: There’s always the authority of the situation that you’re looking at.

Shorr: I was fascinated to learn that for Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew he set up more than one figure; he painted from several figures. That’s why he’s so great, because those spaces are more felt. That’s something that is becoming totally lost. People are unable to detect that the space between here and there was actually seen by somebody and therefore felt. You know by the way they put it down. Because of photography’s preeminence in picture making, there are a lot of people who can’t see that at all. We were taught in a way–and Alex is very influential here–to think that something visual, perceptual was the key thing that made American abstraction different from, and better than, European painting… so that you couldn’t really like Soulages. You had to see how a Soulages was not as visual as a Kline. Now, we learned that, we didn’t come upon it. And we bought it. And it’s true, of course, that people who have been thinking about that and looking at that can see the difference.

Rail: And maybe that was an over determined idea. I was reading recently about a large exhibition where there were two Soulages, a little sketch and then a big painting, and you could see very clearly that he had painted from the sketch. So the writer said that he was surprised by the fact that these weren’t just spontaneous gestures. We always felt about Soulage that he was unspontaneous and totally classical…

Shorr: I think you’re right. I think it was over determined. It takes a while, you have to get old enough before you realize that you didn’t make everything up out of your head, you know, people really did influence you. We gave no credence to anything post-WWII that wasn’t American. We were jingos.

Rail: Except for Balthus, Morandi, and Giacometti.

Shorr: Well I particularly like Morandi, who was a kind of sage to us.

Rail: We see him so existentially because there he is painting the things on his shelf for forty years, like a Beckett drama.

Shorr: Right, and apparently he was fascist.

Rail: No, he laid low. I don’t think he loved Mussolini. He just wanted to stay home and be left alone to paint. Don’t you think there’s something one sees over years of teaching, something perennial about the desire to paint, the desire to look, the excitement over getting a painterly adjustment right?

Shorr: Right, and I would say that universally people just learning to paint make more interesting paintings when they’re looking at things. Paradoxically, they think they are being more true to themselves when they invent things. But all the most gifted students that we had, although we introduced them to this, moved on to something else. It was perceived as a lower form of expression, something to get past.

Rail: They’d appreciate that it was a good pedagogical method, and then they’d get past it. But occasionally somebody could do something with it. Fairfield Porter said something to the effect that the more conservative the artist is, the more sophisticated that artist must be. In other words if you’re naively conservative, you just go ahead with the procedures that you’ve learned. Those are the painters who get worse and worse. The painting gets technically better and the art gets worse.

One other thing I want to get into is the relation of one’s painting to what’s going on [in the art world]. You and I may feel like we’re somewhat in left field except in our own coterie. But at certain critical moments somebody has a show and that can push somebody else, and people can see their work in a different context. I remember walking by Joan Semmel one time. She was sitting at a café outside on 10th Avenue when her paintings of her own body were up at Mitchell Algus, and Jenny Seville had a bunch of huge, outrageous paintings of her naked self, and I said “How ya doing?” and Joan said, “I’m fucked.” It wasn’t the case, but you could understand how she felt. There’s the matter of what’s going on in the immediate vicinity of what one is doing. Or you see somebody whose work has picked up on your own work and that nudges you to say, “I’m done with that.”

"Objects of Use to Me Nearly All My Life," 2008. 70 × 135 inches, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Cheryl Pelavin Fine Art, NYC.

Shorr: Well, I experienced an interesting process of rejecting when I came to New York: I’m not ever going to do that. I’ve always admired Martha Diamond’s élan, even though she works from a gridded little painting, not unlike Kline, but the big painting looks like it was painted in one go. There have been moments where I feel like that’s what you have to be dealing with. We have to be able to keep up on a certain level. I remember seeing a very long Amy Sillman piece that went round the gallery and saying, “Okay, this is something interesting. How can I relate to it?” But I can’t say that in the past couple of years I’ve felt that way. All of us who paint from observation and make that a kind of touchstone…I mean we’re very out of it.

Rail: Yes, we are very out of it. But do you still believe in the imperative motto of “making it new?”

Shorr: Well, I think that we aspire to that.

Rail: Even if people don’t get it.

Shorr: I think that it’s a little discouraging that something we have devoted ourselves to so seriously is of little influence now! I had a show in Florida in the early ’90s and Marilyn Minter was down there at the same time. She invited us to a show of a friend of hers. I was showing big color field paintings. And this guy said “Wow those are so great. You must paint from photographs.” And I said “No.” And he said, “Well, how could you possibly not?” [laughter]

Rail: Does the situation offer any advantages? One, it’s out of style. Two, the brightest young people who are best at it often go off and do something else. I remember a time in France when it seemed painting had stopped because everyone wanted to make films. Some people are moving out of the visual arts entirely.

Shorr: I’m still happy with what I’m doing, waiting for the next painting to declare itself.

Rail: Well that’s an advantage to being out of that limelight–that we’re doing it because this is what we do. It has an internal drive.

Shorr: Well, I totally empathize with that. [laughter]


Robert Berlind