While preparing for her solo exhibition of new paintings at Edward Thorp Gallery, which will be on view until June 2nd, Katherine Bradford took time to welcome painters Peter Acheson and Chris Martin to her Williamsburg studio to talk about her life and work.
Peter Acheson: Let’s start with this new large painting, “Desire For Transport,” which includes a group of figures floating in different boats. It’s painted with a mysterious jewel-like light, that evokes a dreamlike feeling, or reverie. Is there a direct connection between this image and your dreams?
Katherine Bradford: Well no—I mean, I don’t feel that this is connected to Surrealism.
Chris Martin: So you’re not illustrating images from your subconscious?
Bradford: I’m trying to create an imaginary world. I think these scenes are recognizable.
Acheson: But some of these don’t even look like figures in boats, they look like ice cream sundaes, floating on a tabletop.
Bradford: Well, they didn’t start out being figures. They were just piles of colors. I was trying to paint boats, and I wanted to get the color in the boat. So it was going to be a painting of boats traversing the stage with colors, you know, like a Robert Wilson stage set.
Martin: And then at some point you saw one of them as a figure?
Bradford: Yes, in the corner of my eye. I thought if I put a little head on that it would look like a giant Robert Wilson woman, and so I went with that.
Acheson: If someone asked you the question why did you leave the figures so inarticulately painted, what would your response be?
Bradford: Inarticulate? Well it’s a suggestion of figures. I think it adds to a kind of midnight, drunken mood.
Acheson: That’s true. I get it now. How about this small abstract painting…
Bradford: The title is “Regatta Armada.” Like most of my other paintings, it deals with the image of the boat. I think of the basic boat shape as a massive hull, connecting it to earth or sea, and then as it goes up into the air it turns lighter, like a sail.
Martin: I see it as an upside-down mushroom.
Bradford: The day I made that painting I came into the studio and I was just ravenous to paint those exact shapes. It was like wanting to have sex; I just had to do it.
Martin: Were you thinking about boats or shapes?
Bradford: I just loved that shape, and I wanted to keep looking at it.
Acheson: Now in this other painting those same forms are reversed. And they look like an extended kind of basketball backboard.
Bradford: Well, I may have even made this painting upside down. Acheson: Do you often turn a painting upside down?
Bradford: Yes, I do. I think I’m making decisions very much like an abstract artist. I’ve done so many abstract paintings.
Martin: At what point do you say, “It’s a bunch of ships in a regatta”?
Bradford: I kind of nudge it in that direction.
Martin: So you’re hallucinating the images in the act of painting, and then painting them in.
Bradford: Hallucinating I think is a little strong. [Laughter] I think if the painting surface is inflected enough, if I’ve worked on it enough, it coughs up a lot of images.
Acheson: What you describe about the field coughing up the images implies a real sensitivity to looking. It puts the emphasis on looking at the painting until you receive something from it. That’s quite beautiful.
Bradford: Well in another painting, “Men In Survival Suits,” I tried to paint a battle scene, which I looked at upside down. It was on the floor, and I saw vaguely those men in survival suits.
Martin: The men in survival suits were actually the white sails of the ships? [Laughter]
Bradford: You think that’s funny—you don’t do that, Chris?
Martin: I have never had a painting where I was painting sailboats and they turned into guys in survival suits. You work on many paintings at the same time. How many are going on at once—20, 30?
Bradford: More than that. They’re all in some stage of completion…
Martin: Do you sometimes come into the studio with a little drawing of an image to start?
Bradford: Listen, I don’t have to come into the studio with a drawing. I come into the studio and it’s full of images. They’re like viruses. They jump around from painting to painting. It’s like going into a well-stocked kitchen. You’ve got all these leftovers to throw in the soup. I tell my students who seem to be interested in intuitive painting to work on a lot of paintings at once. It’s only in the last decade or so that I’ve been able to do that myself.
Acheson: What about this canvas titled “Students Dropping Their Paintings Off The Bridge?” How did that image come to you?
Bradford: In Philadelphia there is a bridge over the Schuylkill River that’s very beautiful. I used to walk past it on my way to teach. I just imagined these students dropping their paintings into the river.
Martin: That would be a good class! [Laughter]
Bradford: I was looking at the painting, and I thought, oh this looks like that bridge in Philadelphia. And it looked like it had little people walking across it. It had this shape in the middle; it almost looked like an anteater. I mean, I could have turned it into an anteater.
Martin: A lot of figurative painters today are using photographs, for example, Peter Doig. Most paintings I see with images seem to come from photographs, and you can tell that, in a certain way. The other way of making images is to construct them more from the inside, like Philip Guston. You do both sometimes. Can you talk about that?
Bradford: I used to use a projector, and painted from images I’d found in books or that had been part of another painting. After awhile I got the confidence to find the images as I painted. I’ve built up a store of images that I can use, so I don’t have to hunt for them; they seem to be at my fingertips.
Acheson: You shut your eyes and get into this inner space, but for me the key to your work is that it’s neither internal nor external. You just find images in between them. There’s also something about your paint application that’s extremely direct, so that no matter how fantastic or humorous your images appear, they seem to have a certain exuberance in their presence.
Bradford: I’ve spent years learning which brush to use for which mark, and just how much paint I need on the brush and how much medium to combine with the paint. I’ve done it over and over again until I felt very at home with how my hand and the brush interact. The paintings evolve very slowly because there are often a lot of other paintings beneath each image. I have to kind of nudge them into existence.
Martin: Can you define “nudge”?
Bradford: Donna Nelson came to my studio, years ago, and she told me that I must paint like a blind mole going forwards, slowly. I never forgot what she said, and I’ve thought of it lately, because I put some paint on, look at it, and move it slightly, you know, nudging! [Laughter] In the final stages of a painting I use small amounts of color and soft brushes. I’m not describing the forms so much as letting the color exist as marks.
Martin: How do you know if a painting is finished?
Bradford: I don’t. I heard John Walker say in a lecture that he doesn’t know when something’s finished. He paints on them even after he’s shown them. Similarly, Elizabeth Murray says that she got a painting back from the Guggenheim Museum and she kept working on it.
Acheson: Can you talk about the color in these new paintings?
Bradford: Well, Stephen Maine wrote of my last show, “Katherine Bradford is painting dark pools of water shot through with fiery colors.” And as soon as I read that I thought, that’s a great idea. [Laughter] So I started to do that, and as I painted the fiery colors it looked like a naval battle. That’s how I began these naval battle paintings.
Acheson: You are painting eighteenth century boats with sails. Why don’t you paint destroyers or aircraft carriers?
Bradford: Well, I think the boats are visually much more interesting. A sailing ship is more interesting to look at than a battleship. I think maybe I was commenting on old paintings of naval battles, and I was trying to undermine it a little; I was poking fun at it.
Acheson: I think there’s something subversive about taking this old masculine image of sea battles and redoing them.
Bradford: Historical naval battle paintings, I think, were done out of respect for the tradition, for the maritime tradition, and I’m not painting like that. I’m chuckling over it; I’m inventing my own stories, I’m taking robed figures and putting them in mud flats in Maine. I’m taking ocean liners and beaching them.
Martin: Well your paintings often make me laugh out loud. If a painting makes me laugh, I feel it’s serious.
Bradford: You know, that was a big breakthrough for me, to realize I could be humorous in my work. I thought painters had to be earnest; I think my early work was very earnest, and I’m trying to get away from that because I think it’s a very constipating.
Martin: You spend a lot of your life up in Maine. Has Maine affected your painting light and sense of landscape?
Bradford: Well, it’s funny. I started painting when I was living in Maine, and the last thing I wanted to do was be a boat painter living in Maine. In fact this ocean liner painting, “Lost Liner”, comes a little bit from Maine. You can see it’s stranded on a beach. This is what the beaches look like in Maine, they’re mudflats. Also the big painting “Desire for Transport,” has this Maine ocean feeling with a horizon line with islands in the distance. I read that the painter Enzo Cucci said that he doesn’t paint the ocean, he paints the presence of the ocean. I’m trying to paint a feeling about what it’s like on the open seas at night—a really intoxicating feeling.
Acheson: You’re not illustrating the intoxicating effect of the landscape. You’re intoxicated by painting, and then images come out.
Bradford: This painting, “Desire For Transport”, is actually an image of people who are intoxicated. I mean, they’re out in these boats, it’s the middle of the night, they’re all dressed up. They’re doing something. There’s a kind of dignified madness to it.
Martin: Who are these people?
Bradford: Well, they’re a group, and yet they’re all in separate boats. They’re part of a community and yet feeling separate and apart. Don’t you think that’s very typical of the way an artist lives her life? And also they’re in a lot of finery and that to me is an interesting state to be in because one is very vulnerable when one gets all dressed up.
Acheson: I see a kind of Fellini image of well-dressed Chinese princess types, standing precariously on little rowboats in a mudflat. It’s very extreme and very poetic. I think of that scene in Amarcord with the ocean liner at night.
Bradford: You know last week I saw a gang of boys on skateboards coming right down the middle of Bedford Avenue. They were a herd of people, a group, and they were each alone, traveling together towards me. I thought—that’s my painting!
Acheson: Oh lovely. It’s interesting that you didn’t see the skateboarders and then make a painting of skateboarders. You made this painting intuitively and then you were open to finding these things in the world. That tells me painting is a two-way street in terms of vision. It’s not just you bringing a vision to the painting—the painting brings a vision to you as well.
Martin: You have had an interesting journey personally; you were married with children, and sort of started out on the WASP track, then you somehow mysteriously, kind of late in life became a painter. Then you fell in love with a woman, and now live as a gay woman with your partner Jane. How has that journey affected you as a painter?
Bradford: The effort I had to make to change my life around so that I could be an artist, a real artist, was a hundred times harder than becoming a gay person. Being a lesbian was a lateral transfer. I think when I was young I didn’t have the imagination to be a lesbian. As a woman of my generation, the message I got was to marry the most important person I could and help him further his career. Probably the most difficult thing I did was to break that contract and go off on my own. I know it’s nothing to this generation of women, but it was a huge deal then. Sometimes I can’t believe I did it.
Martin: Well we’re very glad you did! When you were in Maine, you were first painting abstract paintings, is that correct?
Bradford: Yes, I started out as an abstract painter. The first artists that I ever met were the ones I knew in Maine. Some of them were living in yurts out in the country. I’d go out there for poetry readings. Their yurts reeked of turpentine and basil, and wood smoke too. It was very seductive. Then there were a whole bunch of painters living nearby in Portland. I met Don Voisine and Maury Colton in the 70’s. They couldn’t stop talking about Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. Eventually I found my own heroes when I read Marcia Tucker’s article in Artforum about Joan Snyder’s stroke paintings. I think there was an Agnes Martin on the cover of that issue. I can remember sitting up in bed holding that magazine as if I’d just had a religious conversion. Matt Blackwell was painting in Portland too. I own very early works by all of them.
Martin: You came to New York City in 1979—that was when I met you—and I remember you were making landscape paintings that were inspired by Arthur B. Dove and Marsden Hartley.
Bradford: Yes, and those early shows of Bill Jensen and Tom Nozkowski really were equally important. I was showing with Victoria Munroe in New York and Bernie Toale in Boston. If you want to ask me point blank why I stopped being an abstract painter and reintroduced images into my work I can tell you. It was because I wanted more emotion and I wanted to tell stories.
Martin: What influence has your partner, Jane O’Wyatt, had on your work?
Bradford: I read about Jane in Jill Johnston’s Village Voice column in the ’70s even before I met her. She has a naturally irreverent attitude towards life. She calls my parent’s house, where I grew up, a “nuclear family museum.” Jane tells me stories about working at the animal shelter in Harlem, vivid stories of wounded pit bulls and snakes that have escaped down plumbing pipes. I think these stories have found their way into my paintings.
Acheson: Is there a group of painters with whom you share your dialogue with?
Bradford: Well, around 1996 I met Brandon Cass. He was my student, and seemed to believe, well, we both thought we had a lot in common. We didn’t like academic painting. He immediately came to my studio and started critiquing my work, and I decided to listen to him. In a way, he became my teacher. And he introduced me to Brian Belott and Katherine Bernhardt and a group of young artists who had a very laissez-faire attitude toward painting. This gave me hope that there was a community of people who might be receptive to my work.
Martin: That whole scene at Canada Gallery has great energy; it’s inspiring… Kathy, what about this little painting that looks like Christmas trees huddled in a barn with writing over them—what does the inscription mean?
Bradford: I don’t know.
Acheson: It looks as if the image is emitting some kind of mystical runic formula.
Bradford: I love the word “runic”—I wish I’d titled it “Runic Message.” I call it “Corner” because I didn’t want to pin down the meaning.
Acheson: To me, you’ve left a lot of these paintings precisely at the point where they suggest certain things, but probably different things to different people, depending on what they’re bringing to the image. I really take my hat off to that because the tendency would be to become too descriptive, too locked in to the image, and you seem to leave them one or two steps before that happens.
Bradford: Over the years, I noticed that people would be drawn to my paintings that were curiously not one thing or another, and I listened. I’m a great believer in having a lot of studio visits and listening to what people say.
Martin: You certainly are relentless about getting reactions to your work.
Bradford: Isn’t that key? I learn so much when I solicit opinion. And I make a lot of mistakes; I fall in love with paintings that really aren’t very good.
Martin: If it’s a work in progress, I’m afraid to find out what people think, because it will influence the way the painting develops, and I kind of don’t want to know how it’s going. When I’m inside a painting, it’s very hard for me to hear other points of view.
Bradford: Yeah, well, I think that if we have an exciting experience painting a painting, we tend to remember it, and sometimes the painting isn’t that interesting.
Martin: The reverse is also true. We work on a painting, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere; and then we return to that painting, or the painting turns up later, and we see it as one of the best ones.
Acheson: So in a way you’re saying that as the painter, you perhaps are too inside the painting to be able to see it clearly.
Bradford: Yes, I believe that. I remember when you two were here, maybe a year ago, and there was a very plain yellow ocean liner painting here that you found in a pile of unfinished paintings. And Chris insisted that I leave it alone, and put his initials on the back and wrote “finished” on it. And that painting was in Ed Thorp’s summer show, with Chris’s signature on the back.
Acheson: I do see a loosening up of your work over the last ten years and a courting of something that could be called child-likeness or innocence, or less complex joy, something like that, in your work. You seem to be a little bit, maybe a younger painter now than you were in the ’90s. You’re fresh and more chance-taking perhaps.
Bradford: I think we’re trying to speak a language, a visual language, and it takes a long time to develop a very personal vocabulary. It certainly took me years and years to find my own voice. And I wouldn’t say it has anything to do with age; it had to do with sticking to it, and doing it a lot, like an athlete. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that you know what you are doing—you just have to trust in being the blind mole.