The Brooklyn Rail visited James Siena at his compact Canal Street studio on a rainy October morning. The two-room space felt like some archetypal medieval workshop. Recent paintings were glowing like icons on shelves and on the floor. Framed pieces, books, documents, various tools and paints are carefully organized in shelves and cabinets—along with part of his collection of antique typewriters. A beautiful Alan Saret drawing hangs between the two windows.
Chris Martin (Rail): James—I had a wonderful moment at the Metropolitan Museum this summer. I was with a friend, rushing through this corridor to get somewhere, and I said, “Wait a minute, it’s James!” And there was this beautiful little show of your etchings. And it was so moving to me, and completely unexpected, and I was so proud of you, like, “I know this guy, I know this guy!” So—congratulations! I can’t imagine a better place for your work because The Met has this great tradition of European painting, but it also has these profound examples of Peruvian pottery, Celtic manuscripts, and Indian decorative stuff, everything, so it’s in the context of the whole world.
James Siena: To be there is just really exciting. I got a big thrill about it, after people finally called me and told me. I didn’t know. That corridor area is one of my favorite places at The Met, and The Met is my favorite museum in the universe. And my son and I went there a lot, and we could go there blindfolded. My son loved the suits of armor. And you know, apropos of printmaking and etching, the armor there is one of the first examples of engraving that you can see.
Rail: And that’s something you’ve been interested in?
Siena: Ritualized violence in a therapeutic institution. Who wouldn’t love that? [Laughs] The beauty of death. I’m (really) somewhat of an amateur war historian, so I think about the First World War as the first earthwork, in a way.
Rail: Oh, god.
Siena: The first collaborative, ghastly earthwork. And I have a small collection of aerial photographs.
Rail: Of the trenches.
Siena: Of the trenches, and they are important to look at, for various visual and emotional reasons.
Rail: They look like Siena images. Now you have a show coming up at Pace Gallery on November 18th. This is a big show?
Siena: I believe there will be between thirteen and sixteen paintings and 15 or 16 gouache drawings, which are technically drawings because they are painted on paper. So there will be a total of 30 pieces in the show.
Rail: That’s a lot of work. It’s kind of legendary that it takes you a long time to make a painting because they are painted on such a small scale. How long does it actually take you to make a painting?
Siena: It depends on the needs of the painting. It also depends on the decision-making process. A friend of mine, Dan Schmidt, once said it took him 40-odd years to make a painting. And he was 42 years old.
Rail: Very true. [Laughs]
Siena: There is a lot of labor. The larger of the two sizes that I am showing in November are really dogged struggles. Generally, it is an average of a month or two to finish a painting.
Rail: And this is just refers to the physical work.
Siena: Yes. I mean these are the post marijuana years, so I do less staring. [Laughs] I need to have them sit around for a time while I work on other paintings. I work from anywhere from three to eight paintings at the same time. I’ll leave it alone if I can’t make up my mind on one thing or another and switch to another painting.
Rail: So a painting sits around the studio for a while.
Siena: And they wait for a decision to be made.
Rail: Speaking of the “old days,” the marijuana years, when did you know that you were an artist?
Siena: I suspected it as early as ten. I remember making a drawing very similar to what I do now actually. It was sort of like a rule-based biomorphic shape that I drew on a loose-leaf binder paper. And I colored it in very carefully. The rule was curved lines must not overlap and begin and end at the same place, basically. It was an endless line drawing. I remember saying to myself: “Wouldn’t it be great if I could be making things like this when I grow up?”
Rail: Sounds like the work you will be showing at Pace. Do you still have this drawing?
Siena: No. I wish I did, although I have a lot of work done since I was twelve.
Rail: Did you go to art school?
Siena: I did, as a kid. I went to a liberal arts school for college, though. But my mother encouraged me a lot. She found out about this woman named Mary Crauston who taught art to kids on weekends for $5 a class. We would spend all Saturday in her little cabin the size of this studio. And we would do figure drawing; we would model for each other.
Rail: That’s very impressive. And how old were you then?
Siena: Twelve. And it was very competitive. The kids were trying to do better than the others, but it was very healthy-competitive.
Rail: So you have been on the path to becoming a painter for a very long time.
Siena: Yeah, it’s been going on for about 40 years of training.
Rail: I think of you as a pivotal part of the Williamsburg, Brooklyn scene. Although you actually don’t live in Brooklyn, you live on the Lower East Side.
Siena: I lived in Brooklyn in ’83, in the great bank building on 33 Grand St.
Rail: Okay, that qualifies you. Can you talk about how you became a part of this scene? I think maybe I first met you through Fred Tomaselli.
Siena: I met Fred in California through my first wife, Iris Rose, who is from Southern California. Fred and Iris were in the same gallery in L.A. Iris was very involved in performance in L.A., and when we got together, she got her friends to be in her pieces, and I was her companion so I was in these things. But I was working very seriously as a visual artist. And I wanted to be with her. So I did it, and I liked it. And it got a little more involved than I thought it should. People said, “You’re very good at this stuff,” I said, “Yeah, it’s my hobby.” I did a lot of stuff in nightclubs, and we got very handsomely paid, you know, $100 for five minutes of work in the Mike Todd room of the Palladium, pretty weird. But you know, then it would cut into my studio time because I couldn’t drink or do any drugs the night of the performance, but I liked to drink and do drugs after the performance, which would be at two o’clock in the morning, so I’d be up until six. So the life was just not for me.
Rail: It cut into your painting time. [Laughs]
Siena: It cut into my painting time. Plus I was working for a living; I was cutting mats. That’s how I supported myself; I was an accurate mat cutter. So you know it got out of control—I wound up doing commercials for Cinemax, got an award for the commercial and I thought, this is just too much. Iris and I had a child in ’88. I basically stopped performing around the time of Joe’s birth, that’s almost 17 years ago. Fred and I remained friends when we met in ’84 and he moved out here in ’85. I was working for a living and the East Village was an awful period for me in terms of showing and the art world. They didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, let’s put it that way. But Fred and I kept up; we actually shared a studio in Williamsburg around the same time my son Joe was born.
Rail: It was a small community then.
Siena: Let me tell you this story—Fred introduced me to Mike Ballou and Amy Sillman. Two bodhisattvas of the art world. Amy put together a show at Four Walls about painting, I showed a really oddball work that has never been shown since called “Meltdown.” It’s 48 by 40 inches; it’s just black and white. It’s the endless line painting; it’s very much like what I did when I was a kid. It’s incredibly stupid and I kind of scandalized the crowd by saying I was a stupid artist and artists were basically stupid. I was trying to make an anti-elitist remark. I didn’t know I was being provocative. I was trying to level us all—make us see that we’re all just cultural workers. We are no better than bus drivers; let’s just chill out. But there was an uproar! It was awful! I mean, people were furious with me. And I’d see them at openings, you know, and they’d say, “You’re that guy who said that stupid thing about stupidity!”
Rail: [Laughs] Welcome to Brooklyn!
Siena: I was an instantly notorious ASSHOLE. It was taken out of context…but I know I did say that I was trying to make my “stupid paintings” as best as I possibly can. To take them to the fullest realization, a kind of dogged task performance.
Rail: I’ve heard you express those ideas many times—maybe without using the word “stupid.” You’ve talked about reviving words that were bad words, like decorative painting, or anonymous craftsman. I’ve heard you debunk the idea of the artist “genius” and emphasize the art worker just doing their job.
Siena: Well, the work starts to do the thinking, in a way. The work generates more work. If you need ideas, look at the work. Sometimes I refer to the works as machines, you know. They are like static machines. When they are moving that means they are doing something to you.
Rail: So the structure of your work consists of simple procedures that you follow?
Siena: It begins there, yes. I think all artworks come out of certain constraints that artists put on themselves. I’m just trying to be more explicit in the use of constraints. I’ve tried to make paintings that look like my paintings but are very different morphologically. And one way of doing that is being very explicit in what conditions are put upon the making of the work.
Rail: Do you actually write these rules down for a specific painting?
Siena: No, I’ve done it afterwards. With this catalog that Hobbs did with me in 2001, he wanted to know the rules that I had made, but they were always in my head. And I wrote them all down for him and he said, “Oh, let’s print it!” So now there is this misapprehension that they are written down beforehand. But they’re not.
Rail: These simple rules that you have in your head get you going on a painting?
Siena: It doesn’t explain things like color, for example, but yeah, the rules are a means to get me started. To, then, take you somewhere. To quote Alan Saret, he directed me at one point, looking at some work in the studio, and he said, “I like this one because there are places you can go.” There’s a material that goes into these paintings. They’re not entirely cerebral; there must be some emotional content. I’m not trying to prevent it, but I’m not at all explicit with that aspect of the work.
Rail: You talk like you are some impersonal painting mechanic, and yet I would never confuse a Siena with a painting by anyone else. Your paintings are deeply personal.
Siena: They’re very, very personal. But what is personal? Personal to me in this context refers to the expression of a distinct individual. I find people most interesting when they’re really different people and they’ve found a way to distinguish themselves from others by a particular approach to life. That’s why artists are so interesting. They’re constantly inventing new ways of transforming the world into a work, which then is this talisman of thought. Does that make any sense at all?
Rail: Sounds great! [Laughs]
Siena: I don’t know what the fuck it means! [Laughs]
Rail: So you start the painting with a set of rules, you choose some colors, you work on it over time. Do you ever have one that’s not a good one? Ever destroyed one? I’m always coming up against dead ends when I’m like “No, this is hopeless, I’m painting over the whole mess.”
Siena: I’ve never erased the whole thing. I’ll adjust one or two colors and add a considerable amount of time to it, meaning I’ll repaint. I’ll commit to a color, and realize, no, that’s not the right color. Now if I bail out halfway, the color that I go over with to correct it will look different then that in the areas where it wasn’t painted, so I’ll have to paint the whole thing and then repaint it. That’s one reason I have so many paintings going at once, so I’m pretty sure what the next right move will be. But I generally stick with a painting until I like it.
Rail: So you commit to a process and you really follow through.
Siena: Yeah, but it’s not to say that—some paintings are more interesting than others. Some days are more interesting than others.
Rail: Let me ask about your use of materials. I think of you and artists like Fred Tomaselli and Bruce Pearson as real painters—yet each of you use very unique, non-traditional art materials. How did you come to work on these sheets of aluminum?
Siena: It’s a long story and we still haven’t finished the Williamsburg story—that’s okay.
Rail: There are many stories!
Siena: Just like there are many paintings! We’ll go back fifteen or twenty years. I went to Cornell University. I was an art major, and there was a renegade art history professor named Peter Kahn, who’s dead now. The brother of Wolf Kahn. He taught out of Cennino Cennine’s craftsman handbook from the Renaissance written around 1450, if I’m not mistaken, and he taught us how to make paint. I made my own ink out of burnt toast and spit and I made my own paint out of beaten egg whites and all this other stuff. After I finished school I made paint out of really odd things—like out of hair and out of dung. I got very interested in paint as its own subject in a way, and then gradually I started making the paint a little more user friendly shall we say, and also a little more durable. Because when you make a painting out of dried shit it doesn’t hang around too long. [Laughter] And the salt paintings were a complete failure. [Laughter]
Up until 1988 I was making my own paint, and painting on silk and linen and canvas. They were incredibly fragile. In the late eighties and early nineties, I hung out a lot with Alan Saret. He enjoyed taking walks in the scrap yard on South 8th Street and Kent Avenue, and we would stroll around there and look in the bins and try not to get attacked by guard dogs. It was very dangerous with broken machines and big hunks of metal about to fall on your head…a great place. I found two aluminum panels at the scrap yard and I’ve been reproducing that size (and proportional variations based on it) ever since. It was the scrap yard that led to this thickness of aluminum and now of course I get it from somewhere else, and it’s cut more accurately, and it’s slightly thicker and easier to hang.
Rail: You found paint that would stick to metal?
Siena: I started using sign painter’s enamel. I use a professional sign painter’s supply house for my paint.
Rail: I saw the beautiful color chart from your supply house. Do you mix your own colors or do you accept the given colors?
Siena: Both. I like their colors, and I mix my own colors. I’m not that interested in color. And I have to give credit where credit is due. Tom Nozkowski put it very well when he said that “Colors are useful for keeping the shapes apart.”
Rail: You say you’re not interested in color, but my experience of your paintings in the last few years is that they seem to have this very unique color light in them.
Siena: Well, I am mildly color blind in the red/green spectrum and some have said it’s evident in the work. And since I am colorblind I wouldn’t really know. [Laughs]
Rail: Let me ask you specifically about the size of your work. Has your work always developed on—what seems to me—a tiny size?
Siena: Yeah, I’ve always liked small paintings. As I kid I always liked small things. I was in a little studio on Canal Street, and I think there was a certain physical compression of my life that led to me making physically compressed paintings. So in a sense conditions of life led to that, and of course I ran with it. I think the paintings are a little less compressed than they were. They don’t stay around the studio like they used to. I will be happy when they go away from me next month.
Rail: To have an empty studio?
Siena: It will be almost empty, yeah. To say goodbye… In the old days I couldn’t send them anywhere, they were just piling up all around me. That may have had something to do with the small size. When I draw, I make drawings as small as three or four inches and I draw everywhere I go. I love drawing when I travel, and I’m sure you do too.
Rail: Well you do wonderful, really beautiful small drawings. Your drawing practice is happening all the time?
Siena: More or less. You’re up on a plane, or you’re on a train, it ebbs and flows.
Rail: Do you have in your mind a sort of waiting list of paintings that you want to make?
Siena: No, I don’t. I think about the next painting. I have little notebooks. I’ll go through a flurry of making about twenty tiny drawings, and then forget about them for a year or two. I’ll look at them and say, “I never made a painting like that.” And I might dive into it again. But I’m never sitting at a blank panel saying, “What the hell am I going to do?”
Rail: [Laughs] Which happens to me every day!
Siena: Staring into the void. You manage the void quite well, sir…I was actually joking with some printmaker friends the other day, and I told them that all the paintings they were looking at were studies for prints. It wasn’t one hundred percent true, but the point was that printmaking is as seminal as painting, and I wanted them to know that.
Rail: So paintings lead to prints, which lead back to drawings or paintings?
Siena: Absolutely. There’s no one direction. There will be paintings that are studies for prints, then there are drawings that come first. I’ve also been using strips of wood and laying them down, just to sort of set up particular structures and spacings. I use threads sometimes—I lay them across things in order to get the proper spacing. I have worked on a litho stone, putting sticks all over it, and then I’d pick up a stick, and make a mark and throw the stick away. As I made the drawing I’d lift up the sticks.
Rail: That’s beautiful. So it’s a little game you’re playing with sticks and then this is recorded—set in stone so to speak.
Siena: And I’m playing with toothpicks now too. So things are going into three dimensions. They’re not ready for me to show, you know, they’re not cooked.
Rail: Oh, this is beautiful! This is a grape stem, a complex grape stem, around which you’ve built a structure of toothpicks. Have you always made sculptures?
Siena: I made some like these about 20 years ago, and I gave them all away. I spray-painted them black, and there were some really big ones with tree branches. I joined the toothpicks together, you know, ten toothpicks glued end to end. People’s cats generally destroyed all these sculptures. By eating them, in fact.
Rail: So you’ve been making sculptures for—
Siena: For the past 20 years, but I’ve never shown them. I’m thinking about showing them, but they’re still cooking. There are some up in the country too. They’re very much like drawing for me. But I have to make about 20 more before I know what’s going on.
Rail: Well I think you’re in a position now to show what you want—you’re a big success! The funny thing is that you’re someone who’s rocketed to stardom after what—thirty years of work. How does that feel? [Laughs]
Siena: Weird, it feels weird. I like that Buddhist notion of letting go—you know before any great things started happening, I’d already realized I was happy by making my work. As soon as I stopped caring, I felt great.I had no idea that Pace Gallery would be interested. I was flabbergasted. But I thought “I’ve done, Pierogi I can do this.” And then all these other things started happening and I thought, “Gee, that’s weird, other people like it too.”
Rail: We do like it!
Siena: But you know what I’m saying, in terms of the long haul, in terms of how frustrating it is, how painful it is. So many artists are suffering because the work is not adequately appreciated. All of that is true, but suffering is everywhere, and an artist’s suffering and not being appreciated is such a small thing compared to the real suffering in the world.
Rail: People have no homes, have no food, live with violence and wars.
Siena: Exactly, and so, “You’re not at the Gagosian Gallery—boo hoo.” We’re living in a prosperous country, we have wonderful friends, we live in the greatest city that the world has ever known.
Rail: Well, you had for many years the discipline to raise a child, support yourself with different jobs, and work very, very hard at your painting.
Siena: Everybody works hard in New York. Not just artists.
Rail: Do you work just as hard now, has anything changed?
Siena: I work harder than I’ve ever worked.
Rail: So the message for young artists is that when you become a success you’ve got to work even harder. [Laughs]
Siena: And you won’t even feel it.
CHRIS MARTIN is an artist based in Brooklyn.