CLIFFORD ROSS with Phong Bui
On the occasion of the artist’s multiple exhibits, “The Abstract Edge: Photographs, 1996 – 2001” at Ryan Lee (May 14 – June 27, 2015); “Landscape Seen and Imagined” a major mid-career survey at MASS MoCA (May 23, 2015 – March 30, 2016), which occupies two buildings, six galleries, and an exterior performing arts courtyard flooded with his harmonium video, along with a soundscape, curated with his musical collaborator John Colpitts (aka Kid Millions) every Thursday and Friday since June 26th as part of the Solid Sound Festival; and “Water/Waves/Wood” at BRIC House (July 9 – August 16, 2015), Clifford Ross welcomed Rail publisher Phong Bui to his West Village studio to discuss his life, work, and more.
Phong Bui (Rail): Orville [Schell] has referred to you as Peer Gynt, the protagonist of Ibsen’s five-act play, peeling away his proverbial onion while trying to unlock the mystery of his own being. I’d like to do the same because I first knew you as the editor of Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics: An Anthology (published by Abrams in 1990), then a few years later I saw a show of your work at Salander-O’Reilly (in 1993) which revealed your simultaneous interest in abstraction and representation. Then, all of a sudden, your first hurricane pictures appeared at Sonnabend, which must have been in 2002. But the truth is that I didn’t know it was the same person until you came to the Sandy show [“Come Together: Surviving Sandy, Year 1”] and we were formally introduced by our mutual friend Jack Flam. And it would have been so fitting had some of your hurricane pictures been included in the show. But it’s all right since we are getting our chance to know one another.
Clifford Ross: A blessing in disguise.
Rail: Now if I were to ask you, what were you like as a child? What was the first thing that you saw that may have filled you with a desire to become an artist when you grew up?
Ross: There was no such moment—except that I generally remember liking to work with my hands, and make strange things—in all kinds of ways. When I was seven, I announced to my family before dinner one night that I had made cookies with my chemistry set. That was some batch of cookies! Eventually, my older brother took out a chisel and a hammer, to see if he could break one. [Laughs.] I spent a lot of time playing with an Erector set, which was sort of a 1950s version of Legos, but a little bit more complex. I just liked building things and making things. But there was an element of my childhood I also think fits the pattern of how I behave and function today: in school at age fifteen, I befriended both the cool quarterback from the football team and the class geek, a brilliant kid named David Kanof. Each one was suspicious of my friendship with the other. I refused to give either up.
Rail: Naturally! [Laughs.]
Ross: I’m inconsistent and inclusive. I became interested in electronics through David, and we formed a company, at the absurd age of sixteen, which we called Custom Electronics, Communication and Control. We started making things together for our own use—low-voltage relay systems that turned lights and showers on and off in our bedrooms and scared our parents more than a little bit. Soon, we convinced people to let us design and install hi-fidelity audio systems, and, eventually, in our senior year, we convinced the school to let us build an entire lighting system for the theater.
Ross: For a school to allow two seventeen-year-olds to build that kind of advanced electrical system—they must have been out of their minds. [Laughs.] The reason I mention this is that it has a lot to do with my tendencies as an artist—to move in a creative direction without any of the necessary knowledge or experience required, and then collaborate or learn from others to accomplish my goal.
Rail: I can relate to what you’re saying.
Ross: I should say that both David and I were oblivious to the issue of risk. We were sort of fearless. It’s an early childhood version of my present behavior. I had a vision. He had capability. And we were off on an adventure.
Rail: Vision and action combined are perfect. What about growing up with Helen Frankenthaler as your aunt?
Ross: I was very aware of Helen when I was a child. In spite of her Upper East Side existence, she was a model of eccentricity, freedom, and a certain Bohemian attitude. She loved breaking rules.
Rail: One of my uncles in the family had that same appeal, and I was very attracted to him as a child, but his influence wasn’t felt until I was in my twenties. Anyway, you wrote in the introduction of your Abstract Expressionism anthology about Emerson’s call for a specifically American culture, completely free from European influence, which certainly paved the way for Hawthorne, Thoreau, Whitman, certainly Melville, in literature; while in painting you mention Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Blakelock, who made intimate and modest-sized paintings. My question is, given the fact that you also admire artists of the Hudson River School like Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Frederic Church, who made the opposite huge-scaled paintings that were heavily informed by European paintings, as well as admiring Ryder and Blakelock, how do you mediate between the two tendencies, American and European, which I feel quite present in Pilgrim’s Progress (1992)?
Ross: Some of the Abstract Expressionists wrestled their way to a profoundly American art with a boost from the School of Paris. They learned from the European tradition and wedded it to American sensibility. The best American art is often awkward and when European refinement enters the American art stream, it is not its essence, it’s an important tributary. Look at Helen [Frankenthaler]. She was certainly a very elegant painter, but underneath the elegance there’s a roughness and a rumble. She admired Ryder and Blakelock. Which brings us back to Pilgrim’s Progress and the group of paintings I made from ’84 – ’94. It was an important picture for me in that it reveals my indebtedness to the Americanism of Ryder and Blakelock, and also to the European tradition as it was transmitted to me.
Rail: Can you explain further?
Ross: I’d grown very close to Helen during college, and spent a lot of time at her home in Connecticut, not far from Yale. My first pictures when I left college at the age of twenty-one were indebted mainly to Brice Marden. But within a month and a half of landing in New York, and two particularly notable visits to Jules Olitski’s studio with Clem [Clement Greenberg], I found myself working with acrylic gel, paint rollers, trowels, and the like—all following Jules’s lead—via Clem. I was enthralled. In retrospect, it seems I was in an aesthetic ghetto from 1974 until 1979 – 80—a ghetto of Greenbergian academicism that was ultimately a dead end, although painters like Jules and Larry Poons slipped in under the wire. In looking around now, I feel like Ishmael surviving a trip with Ahab. Even though Clem wrote monumentally important criticism, by the 1970s he had become a polemicist. But I began to feel that I had no right to be making abstract paintings until I had grasped the real world in the way that Mondrian, de Kooning, Pollock, and others had done before me. In 1979 I saw Goya’s great painting The Colossus at the Prado and it just pulled me out of Clem’s ghetto. It was like being hit with a lightning bolt. So I quit painting in the abstract manner that I had been, and I began to paint a series called “Landscapes for the Colossus.” They were crude evocations of landscapes, painted with a rudimentary understanding of traditional painting techniques—but they were still sort of abstract. They were clearly attempts to address the real world in some way—attached more to de Kooning’s Clamdiggers than a painting like his completely abstract Excavation. The Colossus was the real handle with which I started to pull myself towards realism.
Rail: Why landscapes?
Ross: In part because most of the abstract painting I admired was, by its nature, more related to landscape than still life or portraiture. And I was keenly obsessed with the dramatic landscape the Colossus was striding through. I spent a year making pictures based on my dreams about what landscapes he might belong in. I just didn’t know how to paint realistically. So finally I decided to take some basic, academic courses at the National Academy of Design in order to learn to paint and sculpt realistically.
Rail: For how long did you study there?
Ross: A year—from 1980 – 81. The next two to three years I was self-taught—but rigorously. After studying at the Academy, I went out into the landscape with a straw hat on my head, a French easel, an oval wooden palette, oil paints, and sable brushes. To think about it makes me laugh. Such a cliché! And I spent most of 1983 working on one sculpture, a life-sized reclining nude. Essentially I put myself through a three-year apprenticeship. I did a show in 1984, which was strange—and appalling. [Laughs.] I had run right off the deep end, running away from everything I had been born into as an artist. I had very little sense of what my contemporaries were doing—David Salle, Eric Fischl, Julian Schnabel, Ross Bleckner, and others. But starting in 1984, when I felt I had gotten a grip on the real world, my natural tendencies toward abstraction began to reemerge. Basically, Pilgrim’s Progress, along with other pictures made between 1984 and 1994, were at the divide between realism and abstraction, and the product of the basic roughness of American culture and my affinity for European tendencies. But I felt completely out of the New York mainstream. I think it was David Salle who asked me, a few years ago, “Where were you in the ’80s?” It took me a relatively long time to mature as an artist—and I’m still going. In the ’80s and ’90s, I was showing at Salander-O’Reilly, an Upper East Side gallery, not in SoHo where everyone else was showing.
Rail: What was your relationship with Bill O’Reilly and Larry Salander?
Ross: Both Larry and Bill taught me a lot about American painting. They were the ones who really helped me appreciate Dove, Hartley, Ryder, Blakelock, and strange contemporaries like Albert York. They never spoke kindly about the hot artists of the ’80s.
Rail: Most of us still treasure those wonderful shows of late paintings by Turner, Corot, Courbet, and so on. Oh, I almost forgot Louis Eilshemius!
Ross: And mixing them in with in with contemporaries like myself, Darryl Hughto, Kikuo Saito, Don Gummer, and a few of the older generation including Leland Bell, Paul Resika, and Robert De Niro, Sr. It was a very strange gallery relative to the contemporary art scene. I admired their stubbornness, but it was clearly a strategic problem for their contemporary artists. I think they hated all curators of contemporary art—and the feeling was mutual. Bill and Larry were always close to Clem and the young Color Field artists, but they stuck with me when I bolted from the fold.
Rail: Right. Since Jay Clark, in her essay for the first catalogue, Hurricane Waves, mentioned that, in spite of “sameness” and “monochromatic palette,” a great range of color composition was achieved with these images, almost in a portrait-like manner, I would like to ask you whether having sculpted heads in the early ’80s had some effect on the way you render each wave through Photoshop, which can be seen as sculpting the image?
Ross: Yes, in that I am obsessed with expressing the form of the waves.
Rail: Because as you told A.M. Homes in one interview (2005) that printing, which requires endless revision I’m sure, represents ninety-five percent of the work.
Ross: Exactly. The enormous amount of post-production work I do, in the darkroom or with a computer, is very natural coming from my background as a painter and sculptor. I make things. I don’t just capture them. Fundamentally, yes, I’m a painter and sculptor who is making images using photography.
Rail: Similar to the relationship that lies between the painted image and the sculpted image that is evident in the work of Picasso, Matisse, and Giacometti.
Ross: Right. When I am working either on an image of a mountain or a wave, I think about how, in Rembrandt’s portraits, you can feel he would be considering the entire 360 degrees of the sitter’s head, even if he didn’t paint the back of it. Picasso got to paint the whole view through Cubism. I’m convinced that any flat image, be it a painting or a photograph, won’t be as compelling and real unless there’s a three-dimensional reality built into the two-dimensional plane. And that goes for abstraction and realism.
Rail: What about the early works, say the “Water” series from 1999, in which different kinds of light reflect on the water’s surfaces? While in some, if there is less movement, they appear like Mark Tobey’s paintings, in others; where the surfaces are more broken up by the wind, they look like Sam Francis’s paintings! Not to mention the early “Wave” series (1998), made in square configurations that evoke minimalist sculpture! There are endless references to paintings. Do you think it relates to your previous career as a painter and sculptor?
Ross: My modernist tendencies were not the modernist tendencies of photography. They were the modernist tendencies of Pollock, Rothko, Noland, Stella, Serra, and so on. It had everything to do with an assertion of objectness, of color, of materiality.
Rail: Are you referring to the use of tondos, diamonds, and squares in the “Morocco” series (1995)?
Ross: Those strange shape works were one way for a photograph to declare, “I’m an object, and then I’m an image.” It’s the dance that I’ve been doing ever since, like making a photographic image bond with the materiality of wood. I don’t even know if these new works are photographs. I feel they’re almost back to sculpture. I’m trying to reconcile my interest in materiality with photography and they don’t fit together very neatly. That’s what I do—thrive on the impossible.
Rail: I certainly can relate to that drive. Anyway, in the same introduction of the anthology, at the end of it in fact, you wrote, “The Abstract Expressionists, through various stylistic methods, had turned their art into a heroic, one-on-one confrontation with the subconscious. [They] fulfilled Emerson’s dream of a great, indigenous art based on the individual.” The key phrase here is one-on-one, confrontation with the subconscious. It seems as though there are two operations that are required to make each of the wave pictures: one is the operation of an avowed and fearless materialist/romantic/pragmatist who wants to experience the sublime, the unknown, while the other is the operation of someone who thrives to relive the experience through the editing process in order to turn “the wave into object,” “moment to things.” One wouldn’t exist without the other, no?
Ross: Sure. Artists, by and large, are desperate people pursuing a form of expression that is unique to their vision—and always just out of their reach. But it’s always connected to all the art that came before. Artists are forced to invent new ways to make art, ways that fit their own vision. Van Eyck, in his desperate need to express flesh, invented oil paint. Cubism was an invention. And Pollock, in the skeins of paint that he poured, was also an inventor.
Rail: You’re referring to your invention of the R1 camera of course!
Ross: That would certainly count.
Rail: This seems to echo the nerdy fifteen-year-old Clifford and his friend.
Ross: You’re right. In some ways, nothing’s changed. I’ve even had to find new David Kanofs! With the R1 I was trying to capture a far distant mountain, a palpable atmosphere, and great detail. It was an attempt to up the “reality quotient” in photography. I really wanted to make photographs look more realistic than before. And once I realized that traditional cameras couldn’t do what I wanted, I went right off the deep end. [Laughs.] I decided to try and build a new kind of camera. I loved the idea of getting people with more knowledge than me to help, just like I did with David Kanof when I was fifteen. And it wasn’t just in building the camera that I needed help. I eventually needed people who understood the inner workings of Photoshop to almost reinvent digital post-production, because the amount of digital data that was being scanned from my oversize negatives was off the charts.
It’s not that different from my present obsession with veneer and printing on wood, which has taken a lot of collaboration. This phase is the flip side of my work with the R1. The idea of printing on wood involves the destruction of realism and the emergence of materiality in the finished work. I know the wood grain is at war with the image. I don’t know exactly what it is in the last few years, but my craving for physicality and abstraction has become more intense. And, as a result, there has been some confusion about my intentions as an artist. I’m used to it now. I can certainly relate to how Pollock must have felt when Greenberg condemned him for sliding “back” into figuration—the exact opposite of my present situation where I am sliding “back” into abstraction. And think of the time when Picasso was making those great synthetic Cubist paintings like Three Musicians and simultaneously painting his neoclassical Three Women at the Spring. It keeps you more alive as an artist to keep changing, even if it confuses people around you. In my case, I’m moving back and forth from black and white to color, from realism to abstraction, from moving images to still. I don’t have a choice; it’s curiosity and the work process itself that drives me. I’m following an urge and a curiosity I don’t control.
Rail: I guess you’re not afraid of confronting the subconscious. [Laughs.] Can you talk about how the group of hurricane wave pictures at MASS MoCA share the same height?
Ross: They’re more or less about six feet in height—some are nine feet long, others are eleven feet. They’re installed alternately, creating a rhythmic quality in the room. The large scale addresses the viewer in a very dramatic way. They put the viewer in the water with me.
Rail: They fit perfectly between the beams in the first gallery as I first walk in, and I feel like I’m having a cinematic experience because of their sequential presentation.
Ross: It’s a perfect space for the work. And I agree that they do look as though they’re moving, especially when you’re standing in the middle of the space looking at them all at once.
Rail: What about the monumental 24-foot high by 114-foot long Sopris Wall I? How did it come about and how long have you worked on it?
Ross: I’ve spent about six years working on a method to successfully print on wood. I hadn’t really wanted to show any of it until it was ready.
Rail: Quite an introduction in such a modest scale. [Laughs.]
Ross: As soon as Joe [Thompson] and I established Seen and Imagined as the theme for the exhibition, with an idea for a massive work as a centerpiece, I felt compelled to create a proof of concept for him. It was roughly a quarter-scale work, installed in my potato barn on Long Island. When Joe came to see it, I think he was emboldened and sort of inspired, so he began to expand the scope of what we were going to show. He embraced the “Hurricane Waves” and my “Digital Waves.” I had an idea to build an immersive, abstract video Wave Cathedral designed to compliment the realism and stillness of the black-and-white photographs. The Cathedral is made up of two 14- by 24-foot LED screens facing each other across a wildly beamed room, sort of like a Piranesi Carceri, with each screen looping its own, very complex 63-second video that evokes the movement of a breaking wave. It’s like a lightning storm and a dance. And you’re caught in the middle. It’s like being in the surf during a hurricane.!!img7
Rail: I also feel as though the Wave Cathedral has roots in Harmonium Mountain.
Ross: Well, it’s related in that I’ve been working in the world of 3D computer animation since 2005, and it’s a medium that allows my abstract impulses to blossom in unusual ways. As is typical with me, the advanced work with computer animation got started in a significant way by a 19th-century British photographer named John Murray. He triggered that 2005 move toward abstraction. I discovered his paper negatives of the Taj Mahal. I believed the work. I could feel the Taj Mahal! They shattered my notion of how to present the real world. They invited me back into abstraction. Shoved me really. I broke down the realism of my “Mountain” images into black-and-white negatives, printed them on handmade paper made to replicate John Murray’s paper, eventually leapt into an abstract world of color, and then into movement with animation. At first, I was using animation to make complex images, freezing a choice frame, and with a lot of trial and error devised a method to print those low-res images at a high resolution—up to eighteen feet long. Then, of course, I fell in love with the process itself—with the animation. The first time I showed the animation as an artwork was years after I had been working with it. Sarah Lewis, who was co-curating SITE Santa Fe’s 8th Biennial, asked me to submit a short video work, so I created Harmonium Mountain I—and was very lucky to get an original score from Philip Glass in time for show.
Rail: Which was a wonderful show because it mixed the old and new technology: moving images along with older and younger, as well as more established and emerging artists together. This world of computer has roots in your love of experimental film when you were at Yale studying with Standish Lawder, who we talked about when we first met.
Ross: That’s right. I took his classes in my sophomore year, and my life was changed forever. Stan was the figure who summoned me to jump off the cliff—to take risks that were foolish by normal standards. By the time I finished with his two classes, the history of cinema and the history of experimental cinema, I was making experimental films myself in his basement. We built optical printers out of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee cans. We created the New Cinema Seminar as an excuse to invite the best experimental filmmakers to visit our little group of fanatics at Yale. We would all hang out in Stan’s basement screening room until 1 or 2 a.m., watching and talking about experimental films. It was fabulous. Stan had the creative impulses of an anarchist.
Rail: They’re the two aspiring attributes for sure. But initially you didn’t go to Yale with the intention of becoming an artist!
Ross: That’s right. I was on track to study philosophy and political science in preparation for law school. The idea of working in the public sector, making a difference in the world, was very appealing to me. But having taken classes in art history with Ann Hanson (Post-Impressionism) and Richard Barnhart (Northern Sung landscape painting), William Bailey’s life drawing class, and various other art-related classes, in addition to working with Stan, well, that was it. I never looked back.
Rail: I remember the way you described how Barnhart’s talk about Sung Dynasty paintings left a long and lasting impression on you.
Ross: It particularly resonates in my “Mountain” and “Mountain Redux” series, and certainly with a work like Sopris Wall I. The sublime came to mean a lot to me though various sources, Chinese landscape painting being one of them. I can trace Barnhart’s teachings all the way to the “Digital Waves” and the Wave Cathedral—the desire to place a viewer in front of an awe-inspiring picture or event.
Rail: One of the wonderful things I felt immediately about the Wave Cathedral was first the sensation of being swallowed by the water, but then I was confronted with what Leibniz observed: when you hear the roaring sound of the ocean, the big sound is made up of an endless number of tiny sounds of each tiny wave. But if you only listen to each tiny sound, you’ll lose the sensation of the big sound. This would apply to an aesthetic experience: if you look at only specific details of a painting you lose the sensation of the painting as a whole; and inversely: if you look at a painting as a total image you lose its details. What you have done with your work is allow the two experiences or perceptions to exist simultaneously, which hasn’t been done before, especially with photography.
Ross: There is a long history of art for an artist to draw on—and then to try and add something uniquely his or her own. We’ve talked before about Serra, Marden, Rothko, Cézanne, on back to Rembrandt, and Giotto, among others. The works of these artists and others are one of three crucial ingredients in my own art making. Another is nature. And the third is who I am as a person. If you force a collision between art history, nature, and the individual, you’ve got the fundamental brew for making art.
Rail: A triad.
Ross: A perfect triad, like a tripod. Very strong. Three is a powerful number. It’s no accident that there are three sections to the MASS MoCA exhibition. One centers on the “Mountain,” which travels from high realism to abstraction; another is focused on “Waves,” the still photographs and the abstract “Digital Waves”; and the last is the outdoor twelve-screen immersive video that comes alive at dusk—with musical accompaniment. That immersive video work is birthed from the worlds of the “Mountain” and the “Waves,” but has its own life.
Rail: Absolutely. One last question: in the same essay Orville wrote, he mentioned that climate change has impacted the frequency and the intensity of hurricanes in the recent years. What I mean to say is, given the fact that these hurricane images have been shown in different places around the world, which means greater visibility, do you think, based on what you have heard from a variety of responses, that the viewers are both aware of nature’s indescribable beauty and man’s destructive tendencies toward her?
Ross: The viewer activates any work of art with his or her own values, ideas, and concerns. I don’t see any reason that someone can’t see these images as both beautiful and as reminders of our destructive attitude to the planet. It’s no problem to me that these wave photographs are now becoming symbols of climate change—as well as pictures of a sublime element of nature. I don’t think art is pure. Consistency is not an artistic necessity, but multiplicity is.
PHONG BUI is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.