DEAN LEVIN with Alex Bacon

Over the past year Dean Levin and Alex Bacon have been meeting regularly to discuss the evolving nature of Levin’s work, and the ideas behind it. The following is a composite of some of the issues they have discussed. Levin’s first solo exhibition in New York City, “A Long, Narrow Mark” runs May 3 – June 7, 2015 at Boesky East.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Zack Garlitos.

Alex Bacon (Rail): How did you come to make art?

Dean Levin: I grew up in California and my mom was a fashion designer. So design, art, and architecture were all there in my childhood and upbringing. Our house was all white, it was modern, everything was very contemporary, and when I was in high school I wanted to be an artist and move to New York. However, I ended up studying architecture at Pratt Institute.

After I graduated I had an opportunity to get a studio funded by Artha Project for me and two other artists. We had the studio for a little over a year and this was my first chance to really focus on making work. During this time I was able to figure out the first series I wanted to work on—the surface stains, which are prints of tile samples made with oil paint thinned with turpentine. These works come out of the fact that at the same time I was also working at an architecture firm, where I designed bathrooms. So I was looking at a lot of tile samples. During this time I started to fall in love with the natural beauty of the tiled grid and wanted to incorporate it into painting. 

Rail: In a way all your work involves a certain use of materials and space, so the architect is never really absent—

Levin: They’re fully involved.

Rail: And obviously the stainless steel “mirror” pieces utilize the draftsmanship of the grid, as well. And the translation of that into the computer—

Levin: And how it’s regurgitated out of the computer. Basically even though it becomes a “flat” painting, it’s actually very three dimensional, because it’s projecting and reflecting space, both within and around it. I never really sought out to be a painter, I always try to make my “flat” works as sculptural as possible.

Rail: So how does that play out for these gridded mirror pieces, which seem like the most architectural pieces you make?

Levin: I wanted to use the mirroring quality of the steel as a way of mapping space. Being trained as an architect you always start from the grid, and so I started drawing grids on paper and thought that I would transfer them onto polished steel. I noticed that there were subtle mistakes or errors. I was trying to draw the grids as perfectly as I could and, being human, I was making “mistakes.” As I scanned them into the computer, I liked this test of technology—it’s actually revealing the imperfections, not correcting them. When the grid is transferred onto the mirror’s polished steel the relationship between a perfect clean surface, and a printed version of a hand-drawn grid was beautiful.

Rail: Which is of course related to how Agnes Martin’s penciled grids are purposefully hand-done and not perfect.

Levin: Yes, I’m interested in all the different ways artists have used the grid, from Sol LeWitt to Carol Bove.

Rail: Classically, the grid is a device that signifies mental space. As you know from your study of architecture, it emerged in ancient times as a practical device to lay out things like the pages of book manuscripts. So to juxtapose that purely abstract mapping onto something like a mirror which is, of course, about reflection—this plays up the artificiality of the mirror which, to name just the most obvious of its subtle obfuscations, reverses everything that it sees.

Levin: Well it’s a distorted image. So this body of work becomes about the artificial and constructed nature of perception.

Rail: How did some of these marks come to be?

Levin: Well, for example, this is a kink in the ruler [points at work]. There was debris from the studio in front of the ruler, and that’s why these six lines are kinked.

Rail: And what are these little spots?

Levin: That’s my hand dragging when I draw with graphite. I enjoy when the work reveals that it’s made by hand, and when, as a result, there are subtle variations in each work. Everyone has had the problem when they’re writing a long text in pencil and their hand drags and it smudges. Even with ink, which I use for most of my drawings, it does the same thing. So those are actually just all little particles of lead that the scanner has picked up. It’s not only my errors, but the tools that I am using that are being revealed. When I use technology or a machine that fabricates something, I find it interesting when the machine reveals its constraints. I like when technology fails, or doesn’t work the way you expect it to.

Rail: The approach you take to engaging with technology and materials directly seems to be extended in your work through an active engagement with the viewer.

Levin: Yes. When I produce paintings, or anything that hangs on the wall, I always try to add an interactive quality. With the mirrors, because they are reflective, an interactive quality is already built into the piece. I’ve pushed this further in the show at Bill Brady, where I took the same grid drawings I use for the mirrors and had them cut into latticed aluminum enclosures. Instead of simply reflecting the space, in these works the grids actually occupy the space they map abstractly in the mirrors—they act as a lens onto the actual space, rather than a mediation between it and an image of it.

Dean Levin, “Untitled (Indigo and White)” (2014). Fiberglass reinforced plaster and oil on cotton diptych, each: 22 × 20 × 3 1/2”. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York. Photo: Matt Grubb.

Rail: Does one body of work often inspire another?

Levin: Yes. This happens all the time in my practice. For example, I’ve expanded on the convex pieces in another body of work where I take the shadows cast by their shapes and made flat curved panels based on them. I showed them alongside the gridded enclosures in my recent show at Bill Brady. In both cases I was trying to isolate a single aspect of two bodies of work I had been making for a little while to see what happened. The grids I had drawn and printed on steel were reduced to lines in space, then for the shadow pieces I essentially extracted the line the convex canvases cut in space. I suppose, in a way, that show ended up being about the role of drawing in my work.

Rail: Do the other works you make also engage the viewer?

Levin: Definitely. With the convex diptychs and the surface stains I do this by adding an architectural element. For example, with the convex diptychs, the idea to add troughs of liquid and pigment came from wanting to see how I could present alternative ways for the viewer to understand how those objects function in space, by not allowing the viewer to get too close to them and see their shaping from the side. But the trough also reveals the paintings because they are reflected in the liquid. I like adding raw, organic material to everything that I do because it allows the feeling to come back to this factual, unmediated element. We’re still using materials that we’ve been using for a very long time. And I think with the diptychs, adding water was also important because the way that they’re made is based on how water and gravity produces a curve. By doing this I dissect the process by which they are created and incorporate it into the experience of viewing them.

Dean Levin, “90 Degree Wright Angle” (2014). UV curable ink on polished steel and oil on linen, 71 × 42 × 42” overall, 70 × 40” each. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York. Photo: Jason Wyche.

I want to invite people to question the work. That’s really important to me. Another example is how I designed an armature for the surface stains, which takes the paintings off the wall and makes them part of a sculpture, where the viewer engages with them, not as rarefied artworks on the wall, but as objects that can be handled by anyone that comes into the gallery.

Rail: I’m realizing that while most of your works solicit the interaction of the viewer, the shadow paintings, on the other hand, are more hermetic in that they are a self-contained shape. How does this factor into your practice as a whole?

Levin: While I’m usually trying to activate space and viewer alike with my work, I also find it interesting to turn inward and examine the conceptual aspects of my work as a way to expand my practice. This is true, for example, of the shadow paintings. These isolate my engagement with the drawn line to create a formal object that I arrive at via chance and mediation, much as Duchamp did in the lines drawn with dropped lengths of string in his “3 Standard Stoppages.”

Rail: Are there any other works that fall into this more hermetic category? The archive paintings come to mind.

Levin: Absolutely. Those works come out of my desire to engage the history of every object. If you’ve ever seen a building that’s been torn down in New York City, on the building that was next to it you will see the line of where what was demolished used to be. So we’re always leaving some type of trace. The surface stains register the traces of my studio, the dirt on the floor imprinting the grid of the tiles onto a canvas. And this also gave me the idea, as I began to make more work, to produce a specific set of paintings called archive paintings, based on capturing the remains that came out of my painting practice.

To make these I collect the leftover aspects of the processes I use to make the other works. So far these have been grid drawings and turpentine, which become the image and ground, respectively, for paintings on linen. In a sense these works form an archive of what I’m working on at the moment, and as such will change as the work I produce changes. It’s important to me to mark time and my evolution this way, and I also enjoy being able to deal with the history of abstract painting more directly than in the other series of works that, while still referencing painting’s past, are more directly in conversation with architectural paradigms. These are essentially the only works where I’m actively composing, and not simply letting my chosen process and parameters dictate the final form the work takes.

Rail: Speaking of those works that are produced in a more procedural way, I’m curious, how do you make the convex pieces?

Levin: There are a lot of aspects involved, and the process behind the convex works came from minimal surface studies. A minimal surface is one without constraints. From point A to point B, it is the least amount of material needed to produce a curve or a surface. To make the paintings I pour fiberglass reinforced plaster behind four-way stretch lycra. Doing this produces an organic convex form. The outside surface is then sanded down and primed. I paint with a very thin mixture of oil paint, I’d say it’s about 80 percent turpentine, 20 percent oil. I have to paint many layers of this thin wash, but it produces a very matte finish that is necessary for the works to function the way I want them to. 

Rail: Yes, it seems important as well that these works are monochromes, and matte monochromes at that. I’m also realizing that most of your other work is monochromatic as well.

Levin: I use a single color in most of my work because I’m trying to focus on the issues I am interested in and exclude the ones I’m not. I’m trying to create a perceptual experience for the viewer, and to have the work engage with the space it is in, so a monochromatic palette enables me to heighten these issues. To use different colors in the same work, at least as I’m making it at the moment, would overly complicate things. For example, when I started pouring and casting the convex pieces I started noticing that because the curve is so natural it doesn’t allow the eye to see any rigid or hard edge, except for where the stretcher meets the canvas. When you see them from the side it reveals itself. None of this would work if they were not a single monochrome surface, which doesn’t give the viewer’s eye anywhere to rest. The same is true for a matte versus glossy surface. The latter would generate reflections that would make it possible to read parts of the curve, whereas a matte surface keeps every part of the surface the same.


Dean Levin, “Autumn” (2015). Oil and pigment on canvas in aluminum armature, Cart: 80 × 13 × 31” (cart), and 40 × 30” (2 paintings). Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York. Photo: Jason Wyche.

Rail: How do you determine the size of your work?

Levin: Most often the scale of my work is proportionate to me and my studio, so both human and architectural dimensions. The mirror comes from a grid drawn on an 8½-by-11-inch sheet of paper, which is something we use every day so it’s easy  to relate to that scale. The other scale is 70-by-40 inches, which are my measurements, height and general width. Then, with the convex works, I looked at Robert Ryman’s paintings, and he preferred the square as much as he liked the neutrality of white. He produced a lot in a square format. So I decided to take the square and then add an inch to every 10 inches on the square, so in the case of the convex works, it’s 20-by-22 inches. By this logic, if it was a 10-inch painting, it would be 10-by-11 inches, for example. And if it’s a 30-inch painting, it’s 30-by-33 inches. That was the ratio that I decided on. At first glance the paintings look square, then with further investigation the rectangular shape reveals itself.

Rail: So it isn’t a matter for you of just arbitrarily scaling things up and down, but rather there’s always a certain purpose for creating a particular bodily relationship between the work and the viewer, whatever the work’s specific size. For example, even with certain pieces, like the surface stains that you produced in different dimensions, all of those dimensions are purposeful.

Levin: And that’s important to me. I have to have parameters and rules to make work. Like now, my show at Boesky East gives me a space whose dimensions I can use as a new set of parameters to determine the size of the works. In this case I found that the standard size of commercial mirrors, 96-by-48 inches—which also happens to be the standard size of most industrial materials—worked perfectly with the dimensions of the gallery, which used to be a storefront. Before, when I was just working in the studio, it made sense to make paintings based on the scale of my body, but making work for specific spaces gives me an opportunity to adjust my conceptual parameters.

Rail: How do you approach putting together an exhibition?

Levin: For every show I take the floor plan and I make a 3-D model of the space. I map out everything beforehand. A lot of time is spent on the computer even before any of the work gets produced. Obviously, when I get to the space, things change. That’s the interesting part for me.

Rail: What other things are you working on for this show?

Levin: I’m working on small paintings based on my digitally drawn renderings of the gallery. Le Corbusier once said, “I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies.” This idea allows me to explore the possibilities of things I could do with the gallery space, that I may or may not have been able to actually do, but here they are presented in the form of paintings whose subjects are spatial studies. Over the past year I’ve been busy expanding my work’s relationship to the space in which it is installed, so it made sense to me to explore the other side of pushing the work out into space, which is bringing the space back into the work as an image. I plan to expand this series by introducing images of a range of spaces, both ones I’m working with, such as in this set of paintings, or personal spaces, like my studio, but also imaginary ones I conceive in renderings.

Dean Levin, “5×7” (2014). Oil, acrylic, ink and paper on linen. 55 × 42 1/2 inches. Signed and dated, verso. Photo: Jason Wyche. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York ©Dean Levin.

Rail: I’m interested to hear more about the relationship of these works to the imaginary space of the architectural drawing or rendering. Which, I’m realizing, is hybrid in that it both references a concrete idea of a space, but is also virtual in that it imagines various ways that space might be used, which can potentially range from the pragmatic to the fantastic.

Levin: Yes, along these lines, I am especially interested in Mies van der Rohe’s collages. What I find compelling about these is van der Rohe’s projection of how certain materials might be used before they are realized in a particular space. Also in keeping with this interest in the history of modernist architecture, in the show at Boesky East, I selected some of the materials associated with architects like van der Rohe, such as stainless steel, marble, and wood. This extends my longer investigation of plaster as a building material, which is used to give the convex paintings their structure and shape.

Rail: Do you see the development of your work being more a linear progression of investigating certain forms and materials, pushing them towards their logical conclusions, or do you think you will always be striving after new ways of making work?

Levin: For the moment at least, I am most concerned with making new works that interact with space, as well as investigating the imperfect interface of my hand with fabrication and technology.


Alex Bacon

ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.