On the occasion of his new exhibit Secret Storm: Paintings 1967-1975 (March 17–April 17, 2010), which for the first time, brings together this group of provocative and controversial early paintings as well as watercolors and drawings from the period, the painter Mark Greenwold welcomed Art Editor John Yau to the DC Moore Gallery to look at the works, and to discuss his life and work.
John Yau (Rail): We are talking about paintings that you did between 1967, when you were in grad school in Indiana, and 1972, when you were living in Seattle. Your teachers were William Bailey and James McGarrell. The large painting you did for your Senior Thesis was titled “Furlough”. It seems to me that you are thinking about early Sienese painting, the notion of inside and outside; geometric abstraction; Balthus and Tamara de Lempicka. You’re absorbing and recombining all of these things. The other thing I notice is that the painting has many viewpoints and isolated moments. There are paintings within the painting—the lamp on the back table could be the subject of an entire painting a la Morandi and Sironi. Color is dispersed across the whole painting so that your eye can follow one color, or go from a color to its complementary. What did your teachers say when they saw this painting?
Mark Greenwold: Oh God, that was a long time ago. Bailey and McGarrell were an interesting combination. As a student, you don’t necessarily know what their relationship is. You just assume they’re grownup people [laughter] and they don’t have any of the problems you have. Now I realize that they have all of those problems, or I have all of those problems. I always felt like Bailey was much more the critical, father-type personality, even as a young man. The humor in the work and the satire, or the over-the-top-ness, or the kind of cartooniness, you know, the color, was too crude for his refined way of thinking about things.
Although, I was just sitting in the Met Lehman wing, looking at that incredible Ingres painting of the woman in the turquoise dress. Is there a more over-the-top example of color and intensity? And then McGarrell was more supportive, but I think I came in making paintings that were very heavily influenced by him, because he was quite visible when he was younger. I was trying to get over his influence in my work and, you know, I’ve never felt people appreciated me as much as I should have been appreciated. [Laughter.] I think they were troubled that I was taking so long to make a painting because this painting took me 6 months. The same things that trouble people today troubled them: that I don’t make more work and that it veers between something that’s too over-the-top or operatic and the sentimental. They were, in their own ways, very supportive of the work.
Rail: And then you went from doing this painting, graduating, and moving to Seattle.
Rail: This is 1968. Riots, assassinations, and Vietnam. Pop art and Minimalism have eclipsed Abstract Expressionism, but you’re committed to this kind of painting.
Rail: You’re going to make figurative paintings with a lot of people in them, within a geometric structure that shows the inside and the outside, so it has a reference to early Renaissance painting.
Rail: At the same time, in “Furlough,” you place the soldier’s hand in front of the young woman’s crotch the way Balthus had it originally in “The Street”. Art history and contemporary life—you’re trying to figure out how to put it all together and make it yours. In the painting “Seattle Apartment,” nearly everybody has commented on the direct reference to Ellsworth Kelly. One of the things that I wanted to bring up is Mondrian, because he will make each area of his painting discreet, and yet, it all holds together. I feel like you have some of that thinking in your painting, because you have little scenes and events that stand on their own—the inverted woman lying naked on the rug, for example. And yet they all hold together.
Greenwold: What always strikes me about painting is that it’s able to tolerate all sorts of dissonance and conflict. It’s kind of like marriage, right? It’s amazingly porous, or flexible, or elastic.
Rail: The idea that the painting could absorb anything.
Greenwold: Yeah and the geometry, indeed, enabled me to feel like I could add and subtract and layer it up in ways that I’ve never felt uncomfortable about. Nor have I felt that there were these kind of rules of composition and rules of decorum in constructing a painting, you know, those sort of academic things.
Rail: I think your paintings bother people because they go against decorum, both formally and in terms of subject matter.
Greenwold: Right, I would hope they do.
Rail: This figure lying here conveys one perspective but these others are not going to corroborate your viewpoint—they ignore you, which undermines the viewer’s authority.
Greenwold: I’ve never understood traditionalist perspective, that notion of high-renaissance perspective. I’ve always loved Giotto because he seems to me like a cubist. He could see a receding thing just as well as we can, but he found it more interesting to put both legs in the front, or whatever, and not show that kind of logical thing that happens with traditional perspective. I love the fact of contradicting all of that and I guess that’s a kind of primitivism, which is the prejudice against the early Sienese painters. You know, supposedly there’s progress in art, which, of course, is really questionable.
I was just thinking when you were talking earlier, I’d forgotten that Greenbergian modernism was in its heyday while I was painting “Furlough”. I was certainly aware of that and became increasingly aware of it and all those ideas. A lot of these paintings look a lot like hard-edge painting and they’re not unrelated to some color-field painting, I suppose, but I was always trying to do what Greenberg said you shouldn’t do, which is pretty much everything that you might want to do.
Rail: But you weren’t being reactionary. You were just simply saying I want to do this. I have an interest in this. And how can I do it without being reactionary? Without calling back to a certain kind of painting as the security blanket.
Greenwold: Absolutely. It did seem, maybe because of my personality, like I was working in somewhat an outsider way relating to Greenbergian modernism. I read everything and I liked Minimalism—I mean I tolerated it—but I hated Greenbergian modernism to the degree that I saw where he had lost his way from my point of view. I was also trying to do things both with content and with form and with an inclusiveness that mattered to me.
Rail: People tend to focus on the content of your work, which is often outrageous, but they don’t recognize that it’s always connected to the form in the work. If we take what Charles Olson, quoting Robert Creeley, says—“FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT—which relates to Abstract Expressionism, then you do something quite different. You are working with geometry and placement in the space and how they relate to each other, and all that becomes very psychologically loaded, but it is still formal. Form and content are melded together in unlikely ways, the dispersion of color, for example.
Greenwold: Yeah, totally. That is the frustrating thing about making paintings, whatever I’m picturing in the painting. I have always said, mystifyingly to myself, that I don’t think my paintings are narrative, I don’t think my paintings tell stories, that I don’t think that in my paintings—the content, if it exists, to the degree that it exists—there’s some kind of instinctive unconscious way that I put the things together that I feel more strongly about than anything being clear in the narrative. I think the thing I love about painting is that it’s a single moment and it’s not, you know, it’s not narrative—writing is a lot better way to tell a story than making a painting. The history of Christian iconography proves me wrong, but you know Christ on the cross to me is a mysterious image if I don’t know the story.
Rail: Narrative painting implies that it’s illustrating a text. There is no text being illustrated in your work.
Greenwold: That’s a very clear way to say what I’ve always struggled with about that issue of narrative painting. There’s no text. [Laughs.]
Rail: If anything, viewers become the authors. That is the pact that you make with the viewer.
Greenwold: Right. You tell the story. But it’s a single image so there is no way of knowing what the hell happened before or after and not to be sort of disingenuous about its mysteriousness, but that’s really interesting to me about painting. You know, it sits on the wall mutely, pretty much waiting for the viewer to come by every 100 years, or whatever, and maybe get interested in it for a minute or two.
Rail: These paintings take a long time to see. The figures inhabit different moments. When you’re engaged with that figure, that’s what you are looking at, then your attention is directed towards another figure. They are not connected.
Greenwold: Oh, absolutely. I always loved what Bacon said about how trapping a single moment in its full violence, its full beauty, would be the ultimate painting. I always loved that idea, but what in fact it suggests, as you’re suggesting to me, is that the way I work, which is to take a year or more on a painting sometimes, that my own state of making those figures and still-life objects and inanimate stuff and all that, is built up overtime. I think, as I probably have told you before, I think of myself as working in a way that a novelist works, incrementally, piece by piece, chapter by chapter, messing around with order and maybe my fantasy is the first sentence of the novel becomes the last sentence of the novel, and you are allowed to do that as a writer. I don’t feel wedded to the whole except in some sense that I’m going to make this whole thing fit together and get it when it feels right. Does that make sense?
Rail: I feel like the painting has specific parts and they do fit together, but not comfortably. There is a pleasure that I get out of the parts. I mean there is the still life here and I asked you earlier, if you liked the Miró painting of the farm.
Greenwold: Miró’s great farm painting. That’s all about parts, isn’t it? It’s all about little weird pieces that are singing in some fantastic way.
Rail: I am intrigued by your attempt to absorb all sorts of things in order to get to your own painting. You have taken on Balthus and, in the same painting, Miró.
Greenwold: Some artists have no other artists up in their studio and some artists don’t look at other artists in books. They may be wonderful artists and they may know what is going on in books, but, at least in this period, and for a lot of my career until fairly recently, I have been obsessed with looking at stuff—both trying to see it in the flesh if I could, and daily looking at Chardin and Vermeer, in particular. Not so much to copy them, but to channel a certain kind of—the thing about Chardin for me is that he is always fucking up what he is doing in some way to make it into a painted reality and Vermeer in perhaps a less obvious, but in an equally seamless way. I was thinking about when you were talking about influence—I was thinking about idolatry, but maybe that’s being too much of a fan I guess, or fetishizing the greatness of the people. I’m a real appreciator, but I don’t think I’m terribly intimidated by the greatest works of art.
Rail: Some people would be shocked to hear you or anyone say that. These are great painters; you have to bow down before them.
Greenwold: Van der Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross in the Prado. There are certain paintings that I go, well? As you know, when we do this stuff, it’s not magic necessarily. They may be great, but they are also flawed. You said it a couple of times about the work, about having all these disparate influences that I felt the need to bring together and I think that was true at the time, and it is true even now. Think about Max Beckmann—he was doing this for his whole career. You sort of give yourself over to influence, rather than fight it. For good or for bad, Balthus was always the hero of a lot of figurative painters, but I think it was mostly for bad because the Balthus’s that I love most are the little drawings he did for
Wuthering Heights—those are wonderful those little pen drawings. But then he got more and more serious about being Balthus! [Laughs.] For me what was interesting about him was that he was dealing with transgressive subjects for the time, sex and to some degree violence and those things. Those were things that writers and filmmakers could do and did and which I looked at a lot, besides painting. I was influenced a lot by film, by 60s movies—the great Europeans.
Rail: What about Peckinpah?
Greenwold: Peckinpah, yeah, but all the Europeans—Bergman, Bresson, and Tarkovsky. I became a big fan of Tarkovsky later on. They seem to have no problem dealing with both form and content and sex and violence and humor, though Tarkosky is not very funny. [Both laugh.]
Rail: Initially, you worked in a slightly stylized way, but you shift from that to more photo-based sources, though that isn’t apparent until later.
Greenwold: I think you may be right because the reference material that I used in this period was more found in magazines and fashion magazines, and less likely to be consistent. That figure on the bed was me, the young me, lying on my bed that my wife took with a Polaroid Swinger. It was a mixture of sources that I cobbled together and made into a painting. This is probably a more consistent figure. Although I think I painted several figures together in order to make that figure.
Rail: But the challenge is how to put it all together and make it so it doesn’t look like it’s from different sources, because you are not a collagist.
Greenwold: I’m not a collagist. The thing that always bothered me about what I thought people might perceive, which of course I didn’t realize was making me more modern, but which I thought was something I should be able to disguise, was the fact that my paintings were constructed. When I finally got to Rome at 44, I realized that when you see paintings in the flesh, there is nothing inevitable about a baby floating around. Everybody does it because you just put in whatever the hell you want. It’s not like a figure in the studio that you put in a painting. Maybe I’ve gotten better at making things feel more inevitable in the picture. And the emphases certainly in these earlier ones is to create, I guess using Miró to some degree as a model or even Max Beckmann, a kind of transformational metaphor that makes everything get made out of one thing.
Rail: What do you mean?
Greenwold: Well, even more than paint the form sense becomes—the bricks in “Furlough” are painted pretty much like the arms and the grass—everything becomes somewhat unified in that way which I started to give up after a while and certainly after I become heavily involved with oil paint, where the verisimilitude suddenly leaps out at you and says “Fuck you I’m going to make this bedpost look like gold. I will not be metaphorical—I will not be synthesized.” That was interesting to me.
Rail: You go from a unifying style to making things more distinct and separate.
Greenwold: That was maddening.
Rail: You were at the beginning of a style here and then it shifts.
Greenwold: Yeah, it does radically. And it was deliberate. I did this in Seattle. Then I did these two. I become more and more interested in oil—it sounds like the joke about artists talking about oil or acrylic, but, you know, for those of us that were there when acrylic was invented, it became something we seemed to have to do and we did and I did and I got more and more frustrated with what I couldn’t do with acrylic anymore, which was this nuanced intensity that I think had to do with a kind of realism, though I always hated the idea of people thinking of my work in terms of any kind of realism. But I guess it was the kind of hyperbolic sense of reality—
Rail: Or fictional realism.
Greenwold: Exactly. Once I get into oil in the “Secret Storm” and then into “Bright Promise,” I was faced with things coming apart in some way—in terms of my ability to synthesize. It was crazy-making and I was always frustrated by that, but I no longer wanted to synthesize. It was about dissonance and maybe even some kind of back and forth between taking forms into a more stylized place or letting the references to the objects, like the patterned bedspread, just take over.
Rail: Well, the bedspread has a maddening floral pattern. And here you have this monochrome and then stripes. I thought, “Oh! Gene Davis’s wallpaper.”
Greenwold: Oh, absolutely, I always loved Gene Davis.
Rail: Then this bedspread—you’ve put together monochrome, stripes, and a floral.
Greenwold: Yeah. Well you know, again, I was using tape like most of the hard-edged painters were using. But even using a black and white outfit was really wonderfully contemporary. You mentioned Mondrian earlier, which is very interesting for me to think about in terms of the structure essentially allowing things to, I guess, oscillate or behave together.
Rail: Right. And then this couple that you said got you in trouble because you see the man’s penis. Historically, we see the naked woman, not the naked man. Big tough Richard Prince is going to show biker chicks or ten-year-old Brooke Shields, but not the guys.
Greenwold: [Laughter.] I guess Hell’s Angels don’t take off their clothes. [Laughter.]
Rail: The other thing is that the pose seemed to me to be out of Greek wrestling, something heroic. It’s very geometric.
Greenwold: It is. Those figures have a very archaic statuary quality. I’d never thought of that at the moment. Golub used sports and statuary and yet he would integrate them into Vietnam paintings—it seemed to make
a lot of sense. The overt sexual embrace—Rodin’s “Kiss” or Tino Seghal at the Guggenheim, who pays people to pose for the Kiss—I was certainly quoting art there. Whether I was quoting early art or later, someone like Rodin, there is a really marble quality there. And the fact that this was an Asian woman wearing a modern outfit was also really interesting for me because I had never painted an Asian before. It had an interesting exoticism for me in terms of form.
Rail: One of the things about your painting is that you’re always trying to paint the thing you don’t know how to paint. There’s this porcelain dog in the painting and it occurred to me: “he had to paint that dog because he didn’t know how to paint that dog.”
Greenwold: It’s certainly not conscious. It seems like I don’t know how to paint anything and still don’t. That’s just how I feel. I don’t know if there is something comparable in the writer’s field. I really feel like over time when I come upon anything, it always—and this isn’t excessive modesty—does seem new. I was painting this porcelain dog, which a lot of people have thought was a real dog, but clearly wasn’t a real dog; it’s not even that sort of interesting aspect of the artificiality of what paint does to things. That dog probably has more to do with my earlier work in terms of its being somewhat stylized—the thing the photo realists did was to paint the photo reality. That doesn’t interest me at all. In fact for most of my work I’ve never even consciously allowed the photographic to get into it as in out-of-focus stuff or the kind of bleached out things that happen. My engagement in terms of the specificity of each thing, as if I’m making a whole painting in the particular piece, was always about getting into that in some deep way.
Rail: Even just texturally you have the porcelain dog and you have this bedspread with all these little nubs on it—it’s a very tactile painting. As a viewer, you’re not seeing just an image; you’re seeing things. You have a visceral reaction to the dog, the bedspread, and this terrific, bad abstract painting in the painting.
Greenwold: Which was fun to paint. I kept thinking of Lichtenstein painting the brushstrokes and doing a loose thing tightly. But it was such a bad painting, yet it’s such a quintessentially bad abstract painting. [Both laugh.] It does all the clichés you’re supposed to exorcise, which made it a fun thing to do. But again, everything in the painting felt different than everything else and maybe that’s part of my inability to think of it as anything but a whole bunch of things that I’m putting together without denying their separateness.
Rail: Did you know that the woman’s tooth is chipped?
Greenwold: I didn’t remember that. She seems, as I said earlier, emotionally very different than everything else. If there is anybody that I can pull out of the painting and make love to and want to get in trouble with, she’s the one. It never occurred to me to get on the bed and roll around. It looks like Jasper Johns’s “Painting with Two Balls”. I always thought this was my answer to Johns. These figures always seem very something else to me, like the statuary thing.
Rail: One thing striking about your work is that you have people in a room and they don’t know there is someone else in the room and that speaks to contemporary life.
Greenwold: That’s really true. William Blake always talked about picturing the past, the present, and the future existing all at once. I love that idea, especially in later work, but I was probably doing that thing and the idea of the Antonioni alienation, when you are with another person, it’s always like two big worlds are occasionally coming together. Also, years ago, someone mentioned things that actors do to learn about reacting and all that. The idea that if you put one person on a stage, whatever they do, they put their hand to a head or they bend over, it expresses a certain thing, but the minute you put another person there it’s a relationship [laughs] and it’s heavy, or looks heavy, or it’s loaded. Almost every painting that I ever made had more than one person in it.
Rail: The other thing is that a lot of people try to read these paintings autobiographically and that becomes more so because you stick yourself in the paintings at a certain point. You make seeming reference to your own life. I was thinking of “To the Lighthouse” where the boy James is playing with scissors and suddenly, without transition, daydreams about it being a weapon—is it literal autobiography or is it the range of your imagination?
Greenwold: Exactly. People just don’t get that. It’s probably worse for writers, but is it really a memoir? Of course, it’s all those things. One of the interesting things I always felt about the way I use photography was that there was a great impersonator that used to come on Johnny Carson, during the Nixon era. I think he went nuts because he was so into Nixon. He also did Bill Buckley. But he was much better than the people that become better known and lasted because he probably had an unhealthy intensity. Every time he would come on Carson or Merv Griffin, he would take out a picture of the person. You wouldn’t see him doing this, but he would palm the little picture of Buckley or Nixon. I thought, why would he need to do that? Isn’t it shtick? But there was this kind of relationship he had to looking that put him in this place, and that’s the way I always felt about painting people, about everything, but people in particular, and that notion of the autobiographical. The minute I go to that place it becomes other, even myself, it really does become other, it becomes a painted reality. It doesn’t seem to have much to do at all with the quotidian. Whatever exists in reality for me, it becomes something very different for me in a painting.
Rail: The figure may resemble you, but it has nothing to do with you.
Greenwold: That’s right. I guess one of the reasons I use myself is not because I’m narcissistic but as a protagonist I feel—it makes it even less personal if I use myself in some odd, maybe Cindy Sherman-like way.
Rail: You don’t have full power if you stick yourself in the painting. If it’s someone else, you can do anything with that person.
Greenwold: It’s funny. I’m bringing the imaginative, at least the leap I make in my mind to it, allowing me to do things to it, or even take liberties with it, or not worry about the vanity of the individual, I just have to worry about my own vanity. No, that issue of the autobiographical has always been mysterious to me. A lot of this work was made in the heyday of performance art and people like Acconci. I have always really been really interested in them because of the extreme nature of their gesture. Acconci’s performances were always intensely moving to me, but not because they were autobiographical. They didn’t seem to be really about him. They seemed about an acting out in the world that was intended to create a thing.
Rail: There’s that wonderful video of a slide talk, where he begins whispering to someone off stage about what was really going on in the work.
Greenwold: Then, of course, the Color Field painting and Pop Art, which had nothing to do with that. As you are stating, that’s what I love about that stuff. It’s about relationship, it’s about conflict, it’s about all that stuff. That great piece where Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano tied themselves together for a year. They seemed like they were doing most difficult thing in the world. As I understood it, they weren’t lovers; they were two conceptual artists. But that distancing from the personal to some other level of making—where something disturbing and familiar becomes visible in a theatrical way or a real way.
Rail: Painting is supposed to drive everything out. That’s the purist modernist Greenbergian thing. But you believe the opposite—that what painting is really able to do is absorb everything.
And here you are saying, yes, my painting also absorbed all this performance art.
Greenwold: I totally felt that. I really wanted that. And, of course, my work has never been looked at in that way. It has been looked at as drama, which is supposedly a bad thing in painting. Although most of the greatest paintings ever done in the history of art had some drama, but that idea of picturing things is supposedly no longer viable.
Rail: You know that video, where Acconci turns on some music and says softly into the camera, “I know you’re out there. Don’t you really want to come in here with me!” He is also talking about the form of the video because there is a screen and we can’t step into that world with him. At the same time, it’s an improvised riff on the worst bar pickup line you’ve ever heard.
Greenwold: He was always working on the edge of the cheesy or the shameful, which was just mindboggling in some way.
Rail: I feel like your paintings are right there with that. What am I embarrassed about? What am I ashamed of? But the cliché of confessing is different. I feel like you’re not confessing to anything in these paintings. I feel that you’ve tapped into that part of your thinking that just goes all over the place and you can’t control it. It’s not like all the moments of anyone’s life adds up. You just are who you are at this moment.
Greenwold: I guess that’s what’s so wonderful about painting and being an artist. That’s why I always felt like, even if people don’t get it, or don’t buy it, or don’t want to put it over their couch, or they can’t see why it might be modern or interesting or what all, that the permission that being a painter gives—maybe the reason nobody is interested in paintings supposedly at this moment, except you and I and a few other people, is that they defined it even after Greenberg—Greenberg was still sort of trying to make it interesting even though he was throwing everything out. To go back to that idea of porous—it’s such an exciting place to put stuff.
Rail: It’s the place for the imagination to be free. And free to just think the most embarrassing things.
Greenwold: To be a murderer, to be whatever—and people don’t get that, that split. It’s that realm of the imagination. I was always not necessarily painting my family, but painting families in crisis. The family tragedy, the family drama. I was struck by the fact that Mailer and all those people of that generation rarely talked about family, children, and shame in that way, and impotence. I mean, this is reality and it has always been—you know it’s interesting stuff.
Rail: It doesn’t seem to me that you are painting what would be the realist novel of your life.
Greenwold: But the emotional stuff. The rage. I’m very interested in getting my own feelings into my work in some big way that really matters to me. I love Vermeer, but he has obviously a lot cooler sensibility than I have. He may have become a totally abstract painter if he had lived long enough. But no, I think what generates the desire to make things for me often comes out of a lot of rage and frustration and, Munch-like, the male-female struggle.
Rail: Look at Matisse’s painting of a woman’s face with a green stripe. He put a green stripe down the middle of his wife’s face. Do you think maybe they were having some kind of issue?
Greenwold: Exactly, that’s right. Who takes out the garbage?
Rail: But he raises that issue to a formal level.
Greenwold: Right. I love that late Picasso show and again this idea that Picasso no longer mattered and nobody cared and he’s painting away in his late eighties thinking nobody cares anymore. He’s making these incredible paintings that are so filled with feeling about growing old, and his own impotence and all that. All that’s in the work in an incredible way. But he makes one painting of Jacqueline that I thought was really boring, because he is trying to please her with some kind of normal image, even if he is Picasso.
Rail: Look at all of Picasso’s paintings of children and you know how little he cared about children.
Greenwold: Yeah, he makes them monsters or sentimental images.
Rail: Okay, we are going to talk about a subject that nobody likes to deal with, which is composition and placement. Everything is placed in your painting. Everything has its own room to breath in. It never becomes a hierarchal composition, where one thing is more important than all the rest.
Greenwold: Right. I always hated the way art historians put arrows and diagonals and whatever.
To make it into a system that supposedly creates some kind of hierarchy that makes it all comprehensible. What’s so interesting to me about painting is all things Mondrian, where blue can exist, and red can exist. The incredible risks Mondrian takes with placement and the way Matisse orchestrates a space. This notion of a pictorial space that you can move into and in and out of seems incredibly porous as an idea.
Rail: Orchestration is an interesting word for you to use. How do you honor each note itself, as well as make it contribute to something larger. I feel like the orchestration in your paintings allows everything to be itself. You can look at the glass with the straws coming out, the figures, chair. Everything has its own materiality.
Greenwold: I think there was something about that Robbe-Grillet moment that I was thinking about.
Rail: His attentiveness to everything.
Greenwold: With no hierarchy and no concern about being comprehensible—he’s saying “pay attention to this, pay attention to this.” And also, even though we are all humans and tend to look at people differently than bedspreads, I tried especially in this period to still not make a wall any less interesting than a head or to not have any feeling about those hierarchies in information and detail.
Rail: It seems to me that you are an alien in this painting and to an alien that has never been on earth everything would be interesting.
Greenwold: Everything was interesting in a way and even more than that, important.
Rail: Everything is important because you don’t know what it is.
Greenwold: That’s right. That would be a good definition as the way that I live my life. It’s really true. If I meet somebody or try—I don’t seem to have any governor, as everything really is interesting to me. It sounds pretty naïve, but I like that idea because it’s also open—
Rail: To the world. In your paintings you are open to embarrassment, as we said earlier, which is different than repressing it. You are not trying to be decorous.
Greenwold: Whatever I am, I’m not decorous. I’m not Kippenberger, but I’m not decorous. Many people think that the paintings are over-designed, or over-worried. Fussiness is a thing the art world can’t stand—being tight doesn’t mean being safe.
Rail: No, Mondrian’s tight.
Rail: And he is hardly safe.
Greenwold: So why should tightness be so vilified?
Rail: He’s one of the least safe painters. You have to see the whole thing and you can take it apart any way you want but it’s the whole thing. It’s not a design. It’s against design. I feel that your paintings are against design.
Greenwold: The term design meaning what?
Rail: Meaning an overall structure where everything fits together with everything else in a kind of satisfying way.
Greenwold: I resist that, you’re right.
Rail: I don’t feel like your paintings have any of that, which instantly separates you from a lot of your peers instantly.
Greenwold: That’s good or bad, I’m not sure.
Rail: Well, it makes you original, rather than conventional.
Greenwold: Right. It’s funny I don’t really feel that other people have been doing what I’m doing and that going through my life as an artist, the figurative people hated me because I did these certain things that they hated, and the photo realists hated me because I did things they did—it didn’t seem that this work really fit.
Rail: One of the things that really strikes me about say, the art, or the art world, is that people are interested in how things fit together and they’re not interested in how things don’t fit.
Greenwold: Somebody begets someone else—that’s the story of art. Progress in art, this is how it happened. Cézanne decided that something was missing so he did Cézanne. I was just reading something about Van Gogh, which is that he couldn’t stop talking because he was so excited about being alive that Theo would be going to bed and Van Gogh would push up his chair and start talking to him all night because he was just so excited about the world. Which of course we know, but on some level it’s great to hear that anecdotally.
Rail: When he reads Walt Whitman he gets completely excited—How am I going to get kind of ecstatic embracing of the cosmos into a painting, which becomes “Starry Night?”
Greenwold: That kind of radiance, that kind of secular religion part of the work is really something that I have always been interested in. That other step.
Rail: Well, there is a religious element to your work.
Greenwold: In terms of the devotion to the way I make them? And the result is not surrealism, Anything in the imagination that happens is given this boring name.
Rail: It’s the sacred and the profane in terms of subject matter.
Greenwold: Absolutely and the fact that I’m not a practicing Jew but I have always felt like there is a lot of Jewishness in my work.
Rail: You mean like Philip Roth?
Greenwold: Oh yeah, absolutely. In terms of shame, in terms of all that, in terms of the kinds of obsessions that growing up culturally are very much a part of one’s life—and part of the neurotic nature of my—
Rail: Except, I would say that there is one difference. The difference would be that Philip Roth is a writer who, as he gets older, his maleness becomes screwed as does the way he writes about himself.
Greenwold: I agree, and you know why? It’s because he is terrified that he is not able to integrate growing old and I think that’s a failure of him as a writer. I think Roth seems depressed by growing older. Of course he is a lot older than I am. I might get that depressed. I like the models of artists that don’t. Like Eric Rohmer. Using the subject matter of aging is really important to me. And actually the courage—the interest to show this early work has only come about recently where I realized that this was really terrific stuff that I did when I was young, but it took me this long to get back there and to think about it.
Rail: I’m intrigued because I never knew about this work.
Greenwold: Nobody did. Even people I’m very close to have seen very few of the works and partly when I had my first show of "Sewing Room" in New York, I had all this work at Phyllis Kind and I decided since it was all big and different in some way, and radically different than the “Sewing Room,” which I showed all by itself. It was a gutsy move and it was kind of a conceptual move too. An artist presents a single work, take it or leave it, a single small work.
Rail: And you were vilified for it, which is why I brought up the Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. We all have murderous thoughts—
Greenwold: At least a million times a day. It’s very interesting the way I was using the feelings at that moment, and the way I’m continuing to.