JOYCE ROBINS with Phong Bui

On the occasion of the artist’s forthcoming exhibit Paint and Clay (May 16 – June 22, 2014) at THEODORE:Art in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Joyce Robins visited the Rail’s HQ one early sunny evening to talk to Publisher Phong Bui about her life and work.

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

Phong Bui (Rail): Even though I have been familiar with your sculpture for quite a while, the very first time I saw your paintings in the former synagogue turned into a loft/studio on Hester Street in the Lower East Side in 2007, I thought they were your own personal idiosyncratic response to a systemic approach to abstraction. But at the same time, you were reacting against it.

Joyce Robins: Those paintings were made at the time when Minimalism was the prevailing and dominant trend in the art world. Those ideas were everywhere, yet my experience of the world led me to another response. Tom [Nozkowski] and I would go, whenever we saved enough money, to the Adirondacks where we had bought a tiny little cabin in a town called Peru in the Champlain Valley. We would spend as much time working on art as we could, at least until the money ran out. Then we would have to go back to the city and get work. It was very primitive living there without electricity and running water, but there were no distractions, just work and the pleasure of being deep in the natural environment. I would sit and look at how the light flickered through the trees, vibrating and pulsing back and forth, and I realized I wanted to catch this as an abstract painting. That was how those paintings began. And they began to take on a life of their own pretty quickly.

Rail: Though I am sure it must have taken you forever to paint each painting!

Robins: Well, that’s a given. [Laughs.]

Rail: This must have been in the early to mid-’70s?

Robins: It began actually in ’69 – ’70, and then continued probably until the end of 1976.

Rail: One of them was included in a two-person show with you and Tom together at the LeRoy Neiman gallery at Columbia University (Mutual Regards: Joyce Robins and Thomas Nozkowski) in 2011 that I curated.

Robins: That painting was called “The Vly.”

Rail: Exactly, which was painted in 1975. I remember noticing two things from the first viewing: 1) There is an overall image of an abstraction composed of thousands of small units of shapes that mediate the repetition differently, 2) they seem to conform to, yet resist, absolute flatness. Once I looked closer, and longer, I discovered that none of the shapes were alike, and there must have been hundreds of different tonalities that were painted on them. And the fact that they were all painted flatly and opaquely, among hundreds of shades of gray, the distinction from the lightest color to the darkest in the painting inevitably evoked a certain kind of spatial depth. It’s full of arresting contradictions.

Robins: The title gives it away. “Vly” is a Dutch word for a swamp. I was trying to create an abstraction that was really about a representation of an experience, which I would say most abstraction is—the lines between what is considered abstraction and representation are blurred for me. Generally speaking, swamps are monochromatic worlds with hints of green and flashes of other colors. The waters rise and fall and kill and bleach away the colors. There are passages in the painting that are very electric, particularly since I outlined the shapes with very bright color, which in turn enhances that articulation of the grays.

Rail: Especially with the big painting “Peru” (1970) which was included in the Sandy show last winter. I should add that the endless outlines of almost all of the shapes were painted with different colors, which brings us to the next question: Where and how do you begin such a painting?

Robins: I begin with some random marks, which in the first layer can be pretty banal, and then I would slowly add and build up other marks that create unpredictable variations of new shapes. The outlining would come next, further developing the color and helping to make a tight structure. I find, in most cases, that following a method rigorously can lead me to a dead end. I prefer a process that embraces chance and aberration and is, in a sense, illogical without any real progression. Sometimes there is a definite articulation of the shape. Other times the line, like a lasso, will meander and catch another shape. And this can go on for a while, which is very alluring. And this is what keeps my sense of discovery or of learning from the painting each time I am working on it. The painting is often finished when it no longer has anything else to offer me.

Rail: How did you mediate what was happening during the ’70s?

Robins: We met Ruth Vollmer around 1967 when Tom worked for Betty Parsons. She became a mentor and a friend and we would go to her “salon” where all sorts of interesting ideas were being discussed, cultivated. There were so many interesting artists and writers to meet in her circle, Sol Lewitt and Eva Hesse, the Mangolds, Richard Tuttle and so on. I was a little younger and wanted my work to be different, personalized—a normal reaction I think. I’d say that the overall intensity of the paintings was one kind of response and the high color was another. I was making an argument. Most of the work being made at that time was quite low-key and very restrained.

Rail: Was embracing natural phenomena your way of reacting against Minimalist restraint, especially with the grid structure, while adding your specific language to the mix?

Robins: Yes, I had to constantly maintain the balance of the two things. And I think that the response that I had was healthy for my work. It was life-affirming because I was happy to be in the mountains, walking around and seeing the landscape in a way that would enrich my art when I went back to the city. This is something that Tom and I felt mutually benefitted our lives and what we were doing as artists.

Rail: You graduated from Cooper Union in ’66. What was your painting like while in college?

Robins: I was painting under the influence of Gorky’s later surrealist phase. His paintings from then were very peculiar. They were full of lyrical color but the imagery had a kind of flesh-like figuration in some ways. In some areas of the painting, a body part could be identified more than in others.

Rail: Were they quasi-erotic as we often find in Gorky’s paintings, like for example “Diary of a Seducer” (1945)?

Robins: More or less. I would say the reference to the body was there but not in any overt way. They were otherwise contradictory landscapes with figuration. But once I got out of school I totally abandoned working like that.

Rail: I remember talking to Tom in November 2010 at Art International Radio, and he mentioned David Lund, Angelo Ippolito, and Nicholas Marsicano were among his teachers at Cooper. Who were among the teachers you had?

Joyce Robins, The Vly (1975), 48 ̋ × 60 ̋. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Robins: Nicolas Carone, Robert Gwathmey, and Angelo Ippolito were among my teachers. I particularly liked Gwathmey whose style was very graphic and interestingly colored, which I admired. But, Tom’s and my experience at Cooper was much more influenced by other students. I think that’s the way it is with school in general, that you learn more from your compatriots, with your peers.

Rail: What about your Yale Norfolk experiences in ’65?

Robins: It was interesting in that I learned a great deal about photography. Since I had taken a photography class at Cooper with Josef Breitenbach—a post-Bauhaus photographer—I was able to further my study with Walter Rosenblum who was influenced by Paul Strand and Lewis Hine. Otherwise, I was eager to get back to the city.

Rail: To get back to painting!

Robins: Yes. I was also working at Max’s (Kansas City) while waiting for Tom to graduate.

Rail: Oh, I forgot Tom was a bad student. It took him five years, because he spent most of his time watching movies around the city. [Laughs.]

Robins: I don’t think Tom was interested in filmmaking, although he did make a movie while he was at Cooper Union. He was mostly interested in the concept of how it was made in terms of visual material and the aesthetics of the images. We were both interested in what the directors were thinking about when they were making their movies.

Rail: Tom graduated in ’67, a year after you. 1967 seems to be an important year for both of you. I mean in the midst of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Liberation movement, among other social unrest, you were married and moved to the Hester Street studio.

Robins: It was an important year, yes. Once we moved in it took us a while to clean up the space, but it was really an expansive space, which was very inspiring. The acoustics were terrific. We used to show movies quite regularly. Our friends would come and watch the movie, and then we would have a discussion afterward. Our lives were layered with experiences of looking at movies and art all the time and walking the streets of lower Manhattan, as well as walking or hiking in the country. I think all of those things informed our work continuously.

Rail: I remember Tom said the images that he was generating during that time had roots in subject, in things that referred to the real world. He was also making sculptures made of everyday material, like gravel, cloth, steel shots, reed, etc. Then there were those brightly colored ceramic shapes hanging on strings in the studio.

Robins: Tom would do the drawings, and I would make the shapes out of clay and have them fired. Then he would paint them with different colors and string them up, like a bunch of alphabets. Most of them were actual sequences of images derived from things that we would look at while we were visiting the pilgrimage route in southwestern France, Tarn-et-Garonne, looking at the Romanesque sculptures of the Cloister and the portal of the Abbey of Moissac, or we’d stop in Montauban and look at Ingres’s paintings and drawings at Musée Ingres. It was like a jumble of art reference hotspots. Tom is a diarist, so on the trips he would do these very miniscule writings of what we were seeing and then often there would be a little bit of a drawing, as records of what had moved him especially. In my case I was led to ceramic sculpture when we took a trip to Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac. We stayed in these little hotels and then would take walks to caves with prehistoric wall paintings or relief sculptures on local farms. There was one particular cave in the Dordogne that affected me very strongly—a place called Rouffignac. This cave is a kind of mud tube. The water level had changed, leaving a layer of fine clay on the stone walls, and there were all sorts of finger markings on them. That really stayed with me. I didn’t come home and make anything immediately, but it was just something that I bookmarked, and kept in the back of my mind.

Rail: What were the dates of those pilgrimages?

Robins: Our first trip was in 1971. Venice, Siena, the Dordogne—a life-changing experience for both of us. Tom was blown away by the Sienese painters.

Rail: It’s interesting to me that “The Vly” was painted in 1975, and measured 48 by 60 inches. It was also the same year that Tom decided on his classic recognizable Nozkowski size, 16 × 20 inches.

Robins: He was moved by these personal paintings that people would have in their houses as devotional objects. If you look at a Sassetta painting you don’t need a lot of surface. Most of them were about 9 × 12 inches. You can just absorb the small size but it is the power of the imagery that gives you this enormous emotional effect. Plus there was what we were going through in terms of the politics of the anti-war movement and the rise of feminism, as you mentioned, and I think that my big paintings were sort of my feminist/being-a-small-person-in-size response to how I felt at the time. Before the trip to Siena, Tom had actually done really large paintings, but his painting mechanism was to do something, think about it, look at it, and then most likely change it and push it further in one direction or get rid of it completely and just re-work the thing beginning with the original idea and having it morph as he works, so he would be just working on something like that for a year or two and finding it really frustrating. So after having seen Duccio, Sassetta, Giovanni di Paolo and other Sienese masters, Tom was determined to make small paintings with psychic intensities.

Joyce Robins, “Red Yellow Cone” (2012). 10” dia × 1 ̋ depth. Courtesy of the artist.

Rail: When did you begin to work with clay?

Robins: Right out of Cooper in 1966. I worked in social services, teaching art in a parks department venue. I spent one six-month stretch sitting in the New York State pavilion of the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park in a place where nobody could find me because it was deep into the park, and it was such a ridiculous idea that people would come and be able to have arts and crafts in a hidden space. I finally said: reassign me, I’m getting lonely here. I can read books forever, but nobody is showing up for these classes that you’re scheduling because it’s so out of the way and underground. I basically taught myself to work in clay and learned how to teach people who had no experience of it. We were all finding our way. Once the class was over I would stay and make my own sculptures, all sorts of different things, thinking about what I could do with the clay that would be relevant for the imagery that I was putting into these paintings! What happened was I ended up making these shapes that were just like the painted shapes and would stick them on the canvas. I did this for a year or so and then I thought, I don’t know, this is sort of insane. [Laughter.] Maybe I should just stop doing these large paintings and simply make things in clay and see where it leads. They came from the painted imagery. The first time I exhibited them was in a show at Artists Space when it first opened in 1975. It was an assembly of shapes on the wall that were reminiscent of the images in the paintings, but they were sort of set free. They looked like flocks of birds.

Rail: The first time I saw them lying on the floor, I thought they leapt off the canvas and solidified into themselves three-dimensionally.

Robins: I would assemble them in a grid as a way to reclaim an overall structure. I actually made videos of the pieces coming out of and going back into a pile. Picking up on the lines around the shapes in the two-dimensional imagery, I began making linear pieces, a free-floating digit-thick line. I would create quite large environments of a line snaking through space and then running around on the ground and then snaking back up to the ceiling. Or in some cases I would do pieces where piles of linear shapes would be painted and put together, as if you would be raking all the leaves in the fall, in the landscape. I think my early recollections of landscapes, since I grew up at the beach in the Rockaway, were about the edge where changing configurations and accumulations simultaneously occur. Also, Barry Le Va was an informing artist for me at the time. I was very interested in his scatter pieces on the floor, which he called “distributions.” They would look rather random but were highly premeditated.

Rail: That makes sense, but I would say that the sound component generated from the ceramic as the material of your scatter is what makes the work very distinctive!

Robins: I’d agree. They do clink a bit.

Rail: When did the round sculptures with the holes in them emerge?

Robins: I began to make them in the late ’90s, into the ’00s and continuing now.

Rail: What about the bronze sculptures?

Robins: The clay had limitations and I was always restrained by the size of my kiln. If I wanted to make something larger I would have to make a multi-pieced sculpture.  I wanted to see if I could do self-supporting pieces so I started working at a foundry in Phoenicia in the Catskills. Then I went down to the Johnson Atelier and cast work there in the mid-’80s. The bronzes had a surface, stroked and furrowed, that referred back to my memory of the finger marking in the caves. I created these surfaces in plaster. A layer of wax was poured on top of them and then removed, making a richly articulated surface I could refine with clay-working tools. I would go to the foundry and cast them as unique pieces then because I didn’t want to have to pay for molds. It was too expensive.

Rail: Would it be fair to say that they related to your having studied landscape architecture at City College in 1995?

Robins: Architecture school came later. But, yes, I was always working in the landscape, gardening while making these bronzes, and I was starting to think about how I would set them up outside. They do take on the shapes of tree trunks after all, with cylindrical configurations and highly articulated surfacing—banal shapes with very aggressive surfaces. How do you put the sculpture in a landscape, aesthetically and physically? Before I went back to school I made a sculpture space on our property, a rectangular space cut into a hill with two well-defined sides. The experience was eye opening, like a light bulb went off. Here I can make an environment that supports the idea and protects the work. I thought I could maybe make a career out of this. I thought I should do this as professionally as possible—I knew and admired a number of architects and respected what they did. More good news: it was really interesting to study at City College, and I became very involved in the urban landscape, politically and practically. I had no idea that designing and saving open spaces, working in various ways to mediate the urban experience, would be so rewarding. It taught me how to scale things and measure them. When you do the design drawings you really have to draw to scale; that was a way of marking the landscape. This period in the middle ’90s was when I was doing these rigorously shaped circular or rectangular clay sculptures with perforations that basically referred to the scale of the environment and allowed for wall installation, which is both concrete and ethereal because of the light filtering through the holes. All this really referred back to what the paintings were about, as well as the new experience of architecture.

Joyce Robins, “Untitled (A-17)” (2004). 9 ̋ × 12 ̋. Courtesy of the artist.

Rail: It’s totally logical. Also, you’ve mentioned in the past that the holes are as much about adducing a concept of time and disintegration as with the metaphor of bubbles formed and dissolved in a receding wave.

Robins: That’s true. I would say those memories of wandering around by the bayside, Jamaica Bay, and especially during the hurricanes where the bay and the ocean would meet in front of our house, was very overwhelming.

Rail: The holes are one way of breaking up the surface and remind me of a wonderful line from Neruda’s poem, “Those Lives,” written in Isla Negra where he lived from 1939 with long periods of travel and exile until his death in 1973, “In the net, it’s not just the strings that count, but also the air that escapes through the mesh.”

Robins: That’s beautiful. And yes, the negative space is just as important.

Rail: What’s going to be included in the show?

Robins: There’ll be three paintings from the early ’70s. One is quite large with a real jump in scale—I only did one like that. The two other paintings are composed of the small, layered shapes. There will be several sculptures of various sizes and configurations. There are four from this year, one or two from 2013, and then a few that go further back.

Rail: Could you describe your drawings, and how they relate to your sculptures?

Robins: I was happy that you spoke of the Neruda poem mentioning mesh and strings—since the drawings look like nets of lines. Drawn with colored pencil and graphite, they are very airy with colored dots and line spacing that would refer to the markings and perforations on the clay sculpture.

Rail: Will the show include some drawings?

Robins: Yes, they will be included.

Rail: One last question: Did Tom completely stop making sculpture and focus solely on painting, and you stop making painting to focus solely on sculpture in the early ’80s?

Robins: We switched places in the mid-’70s. It took a few years and it wasn’t at all intentional—we were as surprised as anyone! It’s better this way so we don’t compete with one another. [Laughter.] We have mutual support, and not a lot of tension.


Phong Bui