JONATHAN LASKER with Phong Bui
Even though I’ve followed the works of the painter Jonathan Lasker since I was a student, we didn’t get to know each other until his first exhibit with Cheim & Read in 2007. I recently read his Complete Essays 1984 – 1998 (Edgewise, 1998), just days before coming to see his last exhibit (January 7 – February 13, 2016), we decided to meet at the gallery to discuss his studio practice and thoughts about his paintings, which span more than four decades.
Phong Bui (Rail): I’ve been following your work since the late ’80s. I thought it would be playful to begin with a selection of words used by a few writers and critics over the years to describe your paintings. Let’s start with Tony Godfrey, who used words like “loogy,” “gunky,” “goofy,” “slodgily,” and “gloopy.” He also referenced Thomas Gainsborough’s use of a mirror for water, coal lumps for rocks, and broccoli for trees in reference to his late landscapes, which I felt was perfect.
Jonathan Lasker: Which were all true. It sounds strange, but Gainsborough used to literally set up those scenes with broccoli for trees. I guess there is something similar in my paintings, because I use abstract forms like objects or things in space—things that suggest other things that are animal or vegetable, animate or inanimate. I do remember Tony’s essay. I like the way he writes.
Rail: Were you conscious from the outset that, apart from landscape as a theme, there were also interior scenes such as—
Lasker: 5 of Spades (1978).
Rail: Exactly, in which one can identify various silhouettes, like that of a TV set with antennas, an armchair, a sofa, a nude figure, and a spade symbol. They float against a flat background, partially filled with swirling marks. I liked Raphael Rubinstein’s description that it was painted with “deliberately unvirtuosic paint-handling.”
Lasker: Single Room Occupancy (1978) is another painting like that. It was in a previous show of early works at Cheim & Read in 2012.
Rail: True! Although except for the half of the table on the top left, and half of the bed, viewed from above on the bottom right, and the object with a leg hanging over the yellow table in the painting, one can say it’s both an interior scene and still life. So the three predominant themes are landscapes, still lives, and interiors.
Lasker: Except for portraiture, and religious or historical paintings, which I don’t do, these are pretty much the three different themes I can depict.
Rail: Which is half the subject matter of Western painting! [Laughter.] We can continue onward to Joe Masheck’s article Painting in Double Negative (Arts Magazine, January 1990), in which he used two terrific words to describe your work: “engineered disengagement.”
Lasker: He meant calculated distance.
Rail: Or resisting the Lyrical Abstraction or Field Painting and Minimalism of the ’70s! I mean to say that the former went beyond the hand while the latter completely removed the hand.
Lasker: Those issues were the reasons I became a painter. I actually went to CalArts to become a painter. [Laughter.]
Rail: And you survived.
Lasker: I took tough assignments, let’s put it that way. [Laughter.]
Rail: What sort of work were you doing then?
Lasker: The very first painting in this body of work “Illinois” was in fact painted there. I started out making paintings which were a little influenced by the Pattern and Decoration movement that was very prominent in the late ’70s. I was also influenced by two professors. One was Richard Artschwager—his thoughts about picture space interested me very much. So did his ideas about two-dimensionality versus three-dimensionality.
Rail: Which he certainly adopted in his work.
Lasker: Right. He made a matrix of pattern or surface that was two-dimensional then, at the same time, did these amazing interior drawings. Anyway, the other professor was Susan Rothenberg. Her horse paintings were very interesting to me, then and now. I should add that her paintings of heads, hands, and other body parts are under-appreciated.
Rail: Could you elaborate?
Lasker: I was interested in the tension between image and abstraction, how the mind could be engaged with a picture of a recognizable image while perceiving abstract space at the same time. That was in the air at the time, this figure/ground relationship. I took the idea of figurative form and put it on top of a pattern and that’s where the mechanics of these paintings began. It kind of all began at the end of my second semester at CalArts. I was only there for one year, in 1977.
Rail: So you never graduated?
Lasker: That’s right. I never graduated. My trajectory was a little different: first, I took a few studio courses at night at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) for a couple of years, then I went to CalArts for another year. I thought it was enough considering what I needed to know. [Laughter.] I almost feel a little embarrassed to tell a lot of young artists about this because they are under such pressure to have so much education. I think the art college experience is great and can help people to develop, but I’m not sure if that much education is necessary. I actually think the old academy concept was good in a way: three or four years to learn your craft, and years afterwards to apply it. The whole business of the MFA is often driven by a need to teach. There are also, of course, many serious artists who do continue to study. I’m not speaking against the system, but it may not be quite as necessary as people tend to think. I also think student debt has a tendency to perpetuate the system.
Rail: When you were taking studio courses at night at SVA in preparation for CalArts, you were a musician. That’s something that I wasn’t aware of.
Lasker: Well, a failed musician. Actually, I stopped making music about three years before SVA.
Rail: How do you mean?
Lasker: It was a good and important experience for me to have been a failed musician in some way, because it taught me not to undervalue the quest of making music and how daunting it is. I really wanted to be a musician but I just realized that I didn’t have enough musical talent. I didn’t have a good ear. I had good ideas. I was one of these guys that had good ideas but couldn’t implement them. At any rate, it was good to have failed at something first, then to get a second life as an artist.
Rail: Raphael was insightful enough to point out that you played harmonica and bass guitar in a three-man band. There’s a power in the trio—like Cream with Eric Clapton on guitar, Ginger Baker on drums, Jack Bruce on bass, or the Jimi Hendrix Experience with Jimi Hendrix on guitar, Mitch Mitchell on drums, and the great Noel Redding on bass. The same could be said of The Police.
Lasker: And of ZZ Top, Nirvana, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer who also had a good run.
Rail: We don’t want to forget them. Again, the trio of guitar, bass, and drums is similar to your application of—
Lasker: Figure, ground, and line.
Rail: Exactly! Were you conscious of that when you were making early paintings at CalArts?
Lasker: I’d say that developed very early on, instinctively. The very first painting that I did was Illinois (1977), which was included in the show of my early works I mentioned. I made it toward the end of my studies at CalArts. It was kind of a subtly patterned background, a blue and greenish blue shimmering against one another. Then I painted on these two white forms and a black form that were taken from drawings I had done on newsprint paper. They were subconscious inventions of quasi-biomorphic forms, painted in white. I reinforced edges of those forms by painting black outlines, sort of off register, going in and out of the edges of the white forms which were simply painted flat. The simple contrast created an affecting resonance, and the three formal elements essentially became the foundation of my vocabulary.
Rail: That’s remarkable how clearly you recognized the impact of such experience so early on. Anyway, let’s continue with Robert Hughes’s review of your show at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in 2012.
Lasker: Yes, it was really interesting. He died shortly after that.
Rail: One of the phrases he used to describe your paintings was “cosmic microwave.” I found it compelling because Hughes was the only one to reference the technological hybridization and virtual space in your work, even though a few critics have made references to computer screens and whatnot.
Lasker: I don’t think of them as being so technological, although I definitely think of them in terms of states of being, and how we relate to other beings and things in our world, including animals, minerals, and vegetables. I mean all the natural forms. I think my work has to do with an abiding affection for the state of being. I’ve never talked or thought about this in regards to my works, but when you think about it, the world will soon have to deal with the proposition of artificial intelligence in a very serious way. I feel that the thing that won’t be reducible in human consciousness will be the condition of being and the sense of being. This is something that we share with all animals and insect life on earth and perhaps even with plant life to some limited extent. That sense of being is within the animal forms and I think that is something irreducible. Most of us would admit that human beings have actually gotten carried away with themselves, with their own hubris, self-importance, and sense of superiority. I think we all share that irreducible sense of being, and we share it with the so-called “lower forms” of animals. These paintings have to do with an attachment to that sense of being, how we look at things in space, how we look at so-called “beings” in space, and how we start to see the relationship between us and them.
Rail: What Kevin Power refers to as a “family of forms.”
Lasker: That’s right!
Rail: He also quotes you in your comparison of Mondrian and Morton Feldman’s use of the “physical presence of discrete tones—spatially isolated at lengthy temporal steps. Inevitably, relationships—melodies—form.”
Lasker: I meant they echo each other. Each is repeated in a different manner, it’s reworked; it takes on a different identity. One’s a reflection of the other, there’s an accent.
Rail: Which brings us to the subject of repetition, and especially of echo, which implies sound.
Lasker: It also implies a variation on the original form, which appeared pretty early on in my work. There was a painting from 1986 called Look Alike, for example, where I painted an abstract doodle in black on the left, wet on wet into a sap green and yellow impasto that formed a strong triangle. When the shape dried, I traced its outline on tracing paper then carefully replicated an identical shape on the right. The only difference was that the second was painted on a dry painting surface and is more clearly black.
Rail: So repetition or echoing of form was a method that would also amplify the atmosphere or temperature of the painting?
Lasker: I was very interested in making repetition a virtue as opposed to a vice. But I’m also very interested in things that are repeated in different subtle and unsubtle ways. You see it in one manifestation, then it manifests itself again in a different way. There is something that’s universal and something that’s particular. What is it then, when repeated differently, that’s universal about it? What is it that is universal to that form, which can differ in particular forms? These questions interest me deeply. They’re Platonic philosophy in a sense.
Rail: Since I began writing my poem reviews, I’m very receptive to how things can be described with haiku-like efficiency. I mentioned Joe Masheck’s “engineered disengagement.” How do you respond to Roberta Smith’s term “refried formalism”? That’s pretty good. [Laughter.]
Lasker: That’s fair enough too. I remember painting was proclaimed dead so many times. It was standard practice to discourage painting at CalArts. Unlike the many who dismissed or disregarded Clement Greenberg and his formalist thinking, I applied and used his ideas as a beginning as opposed to an end. I think he was truly an excellent thinker and really did understand the art object, at least within the context of painting. And he resolved certain very important truths, or clarified them in intelligible language. To me, the idea was to take what I thought was useful to my work—the understanding of flat, two-dimensional space and what it could generate, and so on—and make it into something else entirely.
Rail: But what about Hans-Michael Herzog’s “frozen spontaneity!”
Lasker: Well, I would say that these works are very much about objectification. They take the subconscious and objectify it. You have the subconscious and then you also have a real manifestation of it. You’re both in it and out of it at the same time.
Rail: A mutual friend told me that you are known to edit your subconscious.
Lasker: It is extremely rare that you get a second chance to revisit your subconsciousness. [Laughter.] Of course one would hope to.
Rail: True. Still, this brings up the subject of rehearsal. Rehearsing hasn’t really worked against your accomplishments in your work—it doesn’t seem to have been fatiguing. Your evolution as a painter has been slow and steady. And this slowness has a tremendous effect on the viewer’s experience, which Raphael wrote about. He emphasized the viewer’s experience, the looker more than the critic, referring to Keats’s term “negative capability” as one way of thinking about how your paintings ask the viewer to sustain uncertainty and doubt.
Lasker: Raphael’s was a very novel approach. Instead of trying to make certain historical claims, he simply took the idea of being a viewer in front of the pictures and explored what the viewer gets from them.
Rail: I forgot to mention Robert Hughes’s other description, “frosting on the Cubist cupcake.” [Laughter.] It’s exactly how I feel when I see those large forms with the palette knife, with paint slapped on the surface like frosting on a cake. But the term also brings up the concern of Cubist space, whether in still life or landscape. The painting The Remnant of Spirit (2015) is essentially a Calvary scene. There are two abstract images of two figures on the left and a cross on the right. But there are many different spaces in the show. And sometimes paintings can be both still lives and landscapes. This was something we talked about the last time I was in your studio, especially in regards to Morandi’s still life paintings: how his still lives were set up at eye level so they would be painted frontally, and how their compositions varied with subtle differences among the bottles.
Lasker: The compositions are always contained. But more importantly, Morandi was also making the inanimate objects animate on a certain level. One of my favorite quotes from him is that he said that he had the great advantage of being able to lead an uneventful life. [Laughter.] Morandi is absolutely one of my favorite artists.
Rail: When did you discover his work?
Lasker: I discovered Morandi’s work in a serious way when I had a show in ’84 at a gallery that Annette Gmeiner ran, who had a gallery outside of Freiberg, in a little village called Kirchzarten. Annette later moved the gallery to Stuttgart. She did some good shows—an Imi Knoebel show just before mine, for example. It was through Annette that I met a collector in Freiberg named Franz Armin Morat who had a rather extensive collection of Morandi’s work. We went to visit him and I saw his collection and it impressed me deeply, it was fixating.
Rail: So it would be fair to say that you had an affinity for quiet spaces early on.
Lasker: In a way yes, because, at least for me, it’s about this contemplative relationship to things. I think painting partially comes from an affection for the state of being. We so want to regard the things around us, to make perceptual impressions of that, which is around us in the time we are here. The great thing about life is that we are blessed to be here at this moment. It’s a great thing that all of humanity shares: the moment that we’re here. Artists are privileged in that they’re able to express their love for what surrounds our world, and their love for looking at it. My paintings are about the idea of looking at the things around you. They’re really very much about things. They’re about a lot of other things too—picture space, some other subject matter, the conscious and the subconscious elements that we spoke about a while ago, “frozen spontaneity,” “families of forms,” and so on. There’s a lot of dialectical discursiveness—gesture and geometry and things like that. But I think much of the history of painting is also about the activity of looking at figures, backgrounds, and surrounding space. You know, Gainsborough and his broccoli is a good example.
Rail: Hence Gainsborough’s broccoli is not that different from Morandi’s bottle. [Laughter.]
Lasker: It isn’t!
Rail: You refer to your doodling lines as “automatic lines,” but how do you actually make them?
Lasker: I first draw them with a China Marker on the painting’s surface, then those lines are overpainted meticulously with a No. 2 brush. Drawing is specific to the moment that you’re doing it. The drawing is a signature element in my work, however, the painting of the lines is not. When you’re using a China Marker, it handles very quickly. The painting over with a No. 2 brush is very slow and very exact, and meant to have minimal affect. Sometimes the overpainting is my hand but sometimes my assistant, Kevin Boyko, does it because it is purely mechanical. Either way, the effect is equal. Any other aspect of the paintings is always in my hand.
Rail: That’s serious rehearsal required to make them look fluid. It’s Herzog’s “frozen spontaneity” again. Which also reminds me of when Dore Ashton once visited Franz Kline’s studio on West 14th Street in the late ’50s. She asked him how he made his paintings.
Lasker: It was actually de Kooning who recommended that he use an opaque projector, which he did.
Rail: And Kline told Dore that the edges of these huge calligraphic brushstrokes were in fact painted with a No. 2 brush just like yours.
Lasker: Yes, they are very slow. And I’m a slow painter. Last year I think I did a total of fourteen paintings, including the very small ones. It’s pretty arduous.
Rail: I’ve recently finally come to realize that particular aspect of labor in your work. I also see images that I’ve never seen before, such as the reference to the Calvary, the cross, and whatnot.
Lasker: No, it’s never appeared before. I realized how loaded the symbol was after I painted it. Personally, I’m agnostic. It is interesting to me nonetheless for something to have metaphysical resonance in my work. Actually I never think of the signs I use as vacant. They all have some resonance and meaning. But the Christian narrative is not something that I have personal attachment to or belief in. It was also a convenient image. These paintings are about looking at pictures, looking at abstract forms. I easily got the cross from the grid. I was doing all of these post and lintel forms, rectangular bars and upright bars. One day, I just decided to make it a cross. That eventually led me to the abstract Calvary presentation.
Rail: It changes everything, doesn’t it? It changed a lot.
Lasker: Definitely. It made me think of Francis Bacon’s early paintings like the one at MoMA [Painting, 1946] and Graham Sutherland’s series of crucifixion paintings of the same period.
Rail: What about Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross frescoes at the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo?
Lasker: I think the painter that I probably feel closest to philosophically, in regards to his engagement with the Stations of the Cross, would have to be Barnett Newman. He approached it from the perspective of an existentialist and he seemed to have found the point of the narrative that is darkest on an existential level—the moment where Christ, on the cross, actually says, “Oh God, why have you forsaken me?” This is no longer the son of God dying, this is the son of man. This is a mortal death with all the doubt that could possibly come with it. It’s really interesting that Newman chose that specific narrative as his subject. At the moment, in terms of religion and philosophy, mankind is deep in an existentialist crisis. We are still at that point of loss of faith, that point of wondering where we are. That’s where we’re stationed.
Rail: With a certain denial of reality, facilitated by the convenience of technology.
Lasker: Right, of our own mortality for example. I wasn’t just thinking about Newman. I was thinking about how to do a picture that’s also an abstraction. The Calvary scenario became a convenient vehicle. But then, when you start thinking about the whole history of the narrative, how it gets depicted differently through numerous attempts, it becomes interesting.
Rail: What are your thoughts on colors in reference to your familiar cadmium red, yellow, blue, green, and so on? You can always recognize Jonathan Lasker pink from a distance. [Laughter.] I mean, they look as though they come directly out of the tubes, as Alfred Jensen would have preferred.
Lasker: Sometimes yes, I use colors straight out of the tubes. Other times I mix them very carefully to get particular pitches in their intensities.
Rail: Like a specific musical pitch.
Lasker: Yes. Take The Remnant of Spirit for example, the whole palette is very pastel-like in color. It really shows the process of the painting in the paint. First I painted these bars with the palette knife, and then I painted a background of green and I let it go over the edge of these forms. Then after that, I painted this black form in the middle, then I painted a veil of pink over it. So it has a certain depth. It’s not as deep as some of the other paintings that have really thick forms, which really come out into the third dimension; this very much has a blue vertical plane that comes forward. And then it has the black form, which recedes to the background. So it is what you see it is.
Rail: What about a smaller painting like Democratic Beauty (2015)?
Lasker: Which has a similar palette. The yellow, for instance, the green for sure, and the hovering form floating in the middle is entirely different. Whereas The Remnant of Spirit can be seen as landscape, Democratic Beauty, because its platform or scaffold-like structure, can be seen as a still life.
Rail: And, inevitably, The Universal Frame of Reference (2014), which contains the “family of forms.”
Lasker: That’s true. It is almost like a catalogue of the forms. Within the big rectangle in the middle, which is made up of several vertical bars and a few horizontal ones in the bottom right, and one square, it contains all the constitute elements that explode out into the boundaries and the margins around it. So the boundary of this picture becomes endangered by the space surrounding it. It loses its position. The viewer loses their sense of where the picture begins and where it ends. That interested me a lot. It came out of doing a drawing on an unfamiliar sized piece of paper based on this kind of motif. I was using implements that I wasn’t so familiar with and I wanted to test them out, so I tested them on the margins of the paper and it really interested me, the relationship between the margins of the picture and the outer margins of the painting’s plane.
Rail: Like the marginalia in medieval illuminated manuscripts.
Lasker: Which create a very active space. Mine was an accident that I was able to use in a different way.
Rail: Was there ever a study for this?
Lasker: No. There was a drawing and a small painting, but never a study, because the format wasn’t convenient for there to be a study.
Rail: When you apply certain forms in these three colors—yellow, red, and blue—how do you determine which one gets painted first?
Lasker: It goes back and forth actually. The red impasto in the lower right of the rectangle was initially too prominent so I scrapped some of it out, repainted, and pushed the yellow through more frontally.
Rail: How do you build up the edges of those robust forms?
Lasker: I just load a big brush and put a certain amount of pressure on the surface, which creates a residue on the edges. Once the first layer sets—it doesn’t necessarily have to dry fully—I continue the same procedure repeatedly. These strokes and forms are extremely slow and time consuming.
Rail: How long does it take you to build one up?
Lasker: From forty-five minutes to an hour to complete each stroke. These forms can take me three, four, five, days in a row of fourteen-hour days, they’re really killers.
Rail: And you never use tape to get a straight line?
Lasker: Never. I allow a certain amount of imprecision. The only thing that is really precise is painting the scribbly lines. They’re traced out precisely with paint.
Rail: When and how did your signature emerge, which is sometimes just two initials and sometimes spelled out?
Lasker: I’ve been playing with it for the last seven or eight years. It began when I was working on a painting with doodling lines, entitled Drawing Blanks (2003), and left a blank L-like form. I thought later of how Bob Ryman was able to include his signature as part of his paintings. I then, in a later work, added a J in front of the L form. That was how it began.
Rail: Here is another of Roberta’s remarks: “Off-kilter spontaneity alternates with careful premeditation.”
Lasker: There is a little bit of a displacement of how one relates to action. It has a lot to do with the question of how one acts. There is the issue of spontaneity and then there is the issue of the considered action, and they must work together, at least in my case.
Rail: One last question about the silhouetted forms: Do you consider them as forms in profile or in frontal view?
Lasker: I think the viewers’ anthropomorphic tendencies make them see the forms as profiles. But there’s no reason why they need to be profiles. These things really interest me. How is it that we identify forms and why do we identify them the way we do? I’m really interested in the mechanics that trigger those kinds of identifications. It’s interesting because when you think of somebody turning to the side, they are averting or diverting something.
Rail: Which suggests a body in motion or transition.
Lasker: Like the sneaky devil, while Christ is not in transition. [Laughter.]
Rail: Exactly! It all changed since Giotto painted his controversial Betrayal of Christ at the Arena Chapel (c. 1304 – 06).
Lasker: Exactly! To me, the problem is that we always seek anthropomorphic identification, or attempt to personify what we’re looking at. We first seek to personify forms, and secondly, to associate them with animals. I think we seek nature in what we’re looking at. We have an urge, an instinct towards that. When you think about where we’re all heading and how detached we’re becoming from that, the urge is still very powerful and resists denial.
Rail: Hiroshi Sugimoto once told me that he had a strong affinity with the beginning of time, way before men invented technology, when men and animals were equal partners. I feel in your work there’s a respect for the animal and vegetable kingdoms—an association of artificial and natural forms. You seem to aspire to generate a unification of that world. Are you a humanist, Jonathan?
Lasker: I am. It’s not a question of belief, but I feel that I’m just seeking what it is that’s inherent in us and what it is that we’re seeking to look at.
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.