Right after his last exhibition, Stuart Davis Group, which consisted of five large paintings made between 2006 and 2008, at the Boiler in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (May 28 – June 27, 2010), painter James Hyde stopped by Art International Radio to talk to Rail Publisher Phong Bui about his life and work.
PHONG BUI (RAIL): I think the first time I was exposed to your work was in 1989 at the John Good gallery, where Chris [Martin] had his show a year later, which was the first time I was exposed to his work. What I remember from your show was a group of frescoes painted on all kinds of materials: glass, slate, wood, medium-density board, and so on. They were installed quite irregularly. I mean, there was a group of them hanging on the wall high and low, a few that were leaning on the floor against the wall, and a couple that were actually lying on the floor. In the context of the late ’80s when Neo-Expressionism began to look quite fatigued, particularly after the economic crash in ’87 and the rise of Neo-Geo, how do you think that body of work relates to what was happening in the art world at the time?
JAMES HYDE: Well, I arrived in New York in 1977 as an unreconstructed modernist child. In fact, I was a teenager. I remember the rise of Neo-Expressionism and all the wild figurative styles, which to me actually felt like a real betrayal of everything that I thought art should be and wanted art to be. By the time you saw my work in 1987, I had been through a cycle of making work, showing a little bit, then actually rejecting showing in the art world for a number of years, working as a contractor (in large part due to my frustration with what was being shown), and then finally getting back into the art world. That was actually a really fine moment because I felt like I could present my work and I had some dialogue with the art world and the wider world outside my studio.
RAIL: I don’t think the works prescribe to a minimalist ideology in their extreme use of economy and precision in execution. How would you describe your use of the grid?
HYDE: Minimalism is where I really came from, what I looked at, and what I thought about; but I was less interested in the grid as a type of compositional device than as serialization and repetition. The grid was just a means for placing those fresco panels and repeating them in a way that doesn’t involve notions of space, which I’ve never been interested in. Repetition allowed a sequential logic—a music of visual information.
RAIL: When I think of your work, I think of appropriation and deconstruction. But it’s fair to say there is a specific approach to the way you negotiate what it means to be deconstructed or appropriated.
HYDE: Are you saying I’m inappropriate? [Laughter.]
RAIL: I mean unlike Sherrie Levine or Richard Prince, whose work addresses both the act of appropriating itself as a subject in art while questioning the notion of originality, or dealing with the whole materialist issues and the power of spectacle over lived experience, I feel that you, and maybe Deborah Kass, are two artists who share a similar view of appropriation. While you move freely through different periods of art history or take refuge in the work you admire, her exploration of cultural identity seems to be inseparable from her own investment in and love for pop culture, especially Pop Art.
HYDE: I do think appropriation art was fundamentally a critique of the originality of the artist, which is not an enormously interesting idea to me, mostly because I think we’re all original and nothing is original, so it just seems a funny point to land on. The other thing is: appropriation tends to form around an idea of critique which is applied more effectively in a literary way than in a visual and physical way. I’m more interested in the idea of problems and possibilities, of ways in which painting relates to its own history. And painting is not the most brilliant sociologically horizontal medium. It’s not fast; it doesn’t spit out popular imagery very quickly. But it has an enormous resonance historically. I think there’s an enormous inheritance. While it’s a problem, it’s also one of the great fields of possibility.
RAIL: Let me put it differently: what your work and Deborah’s have in common is that, instead of trying to increase the level of depersonalization, you both pronounce claims of the personal, including touch, or whatever generates sensuality. Sensuality doesn’t have to be thought of as anti-hedonist in the platonic sense, but in the case of the artist it has to do with a sensual relationship with the materials. You can see this easily in some cases and not so easily in others. I can think of two examples: Braque and de Kooning. Both were trained as house painters. Braque, particularly during the late phase of Analytic Cubism leading to Synthetic Cubist painting, used faux techniques to mimic wood grain and marble surfaces, and de Kooning’s use of a five or six inch spatula, which normally is used for plastering, found its way into his painting procedure.
HYDE: I love his description of coming to Hoboken and seeing the way they poured the coffee. He said he was so amazed at how they would just open the spigot and run the cups right through; the coffee would splash everywhere. Even though he’s talking coffee in an assembly line, you can see his paintings in that description.
RAIL: It’s true. Just to continue where we left off: how do you think your work as a general contractor affected the way you think and feel about your choice of materials?
HYDE: I actually started as a house painter because I hadn’t learned any skills before turning up in New York. The great thing about New York in those days was you could work on a construction site, watch how people did things, and go to another site saying “I can do that,” and the worst thing that could happen is you could get fired—which I did often enough. I learned plastering, taping, plumbing, electrics, and everything else by welcoming error and failure as a way of moving forward. That was a good life-lesson for me as a painter.
RAIL: You came to New York in ’77, right after having spent two years at the University of Rochester, which is known for its Eastman School of Music and the Institute of Optics. Did you study art there?
HYDE: I studied art on the side but my major was in anthropology, which may relate to the deconstructive side of the constructive equation? At any rate, I came to New York and took a year off from college and I’ve been on that year ever since.
RAIL: What was your impression of the art scene when you first came?
HYDE: It seemed enormously romantic. I didn’t know any artists of my age. I knew David Reed because he had come to speak at Rochester. Robert Grosvenor had a studio a couple of blocks from where I lived on South 6th Street in Williamsburg. He was a very busy man, though he tolerated me watching him pull logs around in the dirt in his backyard. It was probably a good 10 years before I had good artist friends of my own generation, like Vik [Muniz] and Fabian [Marcaccio].
RAIL: I thought Grosvenor’s last show at Paula Cooper was phenomenal.
HYDE: I think he’s our most important sculptor.
RAIL: I agree completely. One of the other things about your work is that you seem to do everything from painting to making sculpture, photography to furniture design, and you tend to do all of them simultaneously. I can think of the 30 small pieces, painted enamel on cast aluminum, that were discreetly installed in the landscape (in Parc Saint Léger, at the Centre d’art Contemporain in Pougues-les-Eaux) in France in 2003. At the same time I can think of those wonderful painted gesture in—
HYDE: The glass boxes.
RAIL: Exactly. The same thing can be said of the nylon webbing works and the collage painting on digital prints. How do you manage to do all of them together at the same time? Is it a matter of personal choice, or something more strategic?
HYDE: First of all I think that the type of painter I’d really love to be would be Morandi. I mean it would be really, really wonderful if I could have a corner where I could sort and build my cosmos. But that just isn’t me.
RAIL: It’s a fantasy! [Laughs.]
HYDE: Yeah, it’s an impossible thing.
RAIL: You wouldn’t want to live with your sister and your mother in the same house with you.
HYDE: No, no thank you! But I think so much of his example and sensibility, even though I’m probably too impatient a person to get to Morandi’s place.
I think painting is never entirely about being a painted object, nor a medium in the narrow sense. I think painting is, as well, a symbolic and allegorical situation that happens to be made by a particular medium and set of materials. And really as a painter I’ve tried to put pressure on what a painting is and rethink it in different ways. And that’s how I end up with such different ways of looking at various possibilities, especially in terms of abstract painting. Let me ask you a question: what would be a good definition for abstract painting?
RAIL: Let’s say that I tell you a little story, which is taken from a wonderful essay de Kooning wrote for a symposium at the Modern Museum in 1951. Actually, the title was, “What Abstract Art Means to Me.” And de Kooning came up with the most cryptic and wonderful answer: he described how, when he came to Hoboken, he met a German who was very strange. He would go to a local bakery and buy different kinds of day-old bread, put it in a huge bag, bring it home, and let it get good and hard. Then he would crumple them into small pieces, lay them all flat on the floor, and walk over them like soft carpet. And this man disappeared for awhile; later de Kooning was told that he had a job taking children to Bear Mountain on the weekend; he became a communist. And de Kooning said, “All I remember was that he always had an abstract look on his face.” And that’s what abstract art means to me. [Laughs.]
HYDE: It just occurred to me that de Kooning was talking about the man’s expression—so he was elaborating on abstract expression—ism? De Kooning was a very funny guy! Defining abstract painting is a difficult question, and I think that’s actually something that’s often not acknowledged. And I would say that there’s a big difference between abstract painting and painting that’s done in an abstract style. I ask that question fairly often because it helps to separate style from substance when it comes to abstract painting.
RAIL: I agree, and that’s a freedom that you really take on in your work. I can think of, for instance, the nylon webbing piece called “Return” (2003) that references Field painting quite wonderfully, particularly Kenneth Noland’s stripe paintings. In the same year you made “Trip,” or “Untitled (Trip),” which referred to the kind of lyrical and sinuous lines in Brice Marden’s abstract paintings.
HYDE: Or late de Kooning.
RAIL: Right. And then the more playful, intimate pieces, which Catherine Perret called, “Chop-Shop” paintings.
HYDE: Oh, the “Pandora?”
RAIL: Yeah, which reminds me of the origami forms without specific images, and of Richard Tuttle’s small and subtle works.
HYDE: One of the wonderful things about making art is you’re not really telling anybody anything. You’re making these things and you’re sort of throwing them out in the world, and then you get these ripples that come back. I have a laundry list of very specific things that I was thinking I was doing, that I was attempting to do, with the “Pandoras.” But I’m quite happy with your observation.
RAIL: Could you talk about your light sculptures, made of papier mâché on concrete or Styrofoam?
HYDE: They really came out from mid-’90s, at the tail-end of the discussion of painting being dead, which I always thought was just such a funny notion. You couldn’t quite take it seriously, but there was a certain thrill to it at the same time. It actually made me wonder what would really be a dead art form, or a dead genre, and I thought that probably the closest you could get would be the mobile.
RAIL: Well, one of them is called “Fallen Mobile.”
HYDE: Exactly, and it was, really. I mean Calder was such a great artist and did so many things with the mobile, that he kind of killed its future possibilities. Now, mobiles end up being either children’s toys or museum kitsch. So I was interested in exploring this ruined genre, and I don’t know, it just seemed that there should be some lights in the ruins.
RAIL: Does the light sculpture have any direct connection to the light or glow furniture?
HYDE: In the sense that it was done at approximately the same time. Otherwise, it came out of a particular habit of mine. If I want some luminosity in a particular painting or sculpture, I put some light bulbs somewhere to light it up. So there’s a type of reverse metaphoric process that I want to bring into concrete objects.
RAIL: How would you describe your painting or collage on photographs?
HYDE: I don’t think of some being painting and some being collage—I think of them as different ways of painting. I think painting is basically about attaching particles to surfaces, so all you have to do is just change the size of the particle.
RAIL: But there’s a big leap from that particular body of work, which is relatively small, to these blown-up fragments and details of Stuart Davis’s painting, printed on a large mural, billboard scale, then painted over by you. I’d say the transformation is quite dramatic.
HYDE: It all happened when I was teaching at Skowhegan in the summer of 2003. For the first time I had a computer and a printer in the studio, and would make a lot of prints and just lay them on the floor. The best of the worst happened: I spilled paint on a stack of the prints. I thought, I’ve ruined them, but soon I realized I had done something good. I had ruined the particular logic of how a photograph wants you to look at it. In other words, it started as an accident that became this intuition, which then morphed into a critique. With our relationship to the TV screen, cameras, and everything else that belongs to our media landscape, we’ve given up on the idea that photography is some sort of truth, but in its place we assume the camera truly is the way we see. So I was going to make these paintings critiquing that notion and then what happened was that it morphed into a problem. And the problem was—what is photography? How does photography look at the world? And of course there is a very interesting dynamic with painting, and a long history of that relationship, and furthermore, of people using different devices and techniques to look at the world. For me, part of what this work was about was saying that photography is a mechanical method—we really don’t see the world in a photographic way.
But photography did something wonderful for my painting. Abstract painting for me builds its own logic on a sort of material chain of reference. I wanted to open up my painting more to the world—this was a large part of why I made the “Pandora” pieces we were talking about. So the fictional arena of photography has allowed me to paint on the world.
Stuart Davis is part of my world—painting on details of his paintings isn’t so much art about art as it is painting on a view of the world that matters to me.
As for how my Davis paintings came about—they really came out of my experience being in the Prado, about five years ago, for the first time. It was great to see these fantastic paintings that I’d only seen in books, but what you couldn’t see in reproduction were the details of the surfaces, including cracks, little areas of repaired damage, or relining of old to new canvases. In the museum you can see how the painter constructed the images, the type of pigment that was being used, and so on. In order to remember all these fascinating bits I took many pictures of different details. It wasn’t my intention to paint over the details of Velázquez, Goya, and Titian, but as soon as they were blown up and printed out, it was irresistible.
You are right about how different the billboard Davis paintings are—the painting over paintings from the Prado (which I’ve never shown in the U.S.) and the paintings over photographic scenes (which I showed last year at SouthFirst gallery) are more intimate, even private. With the Davis paintings, I wanted something more public and Davis seemed just the right artist. He painted billboards and advertising and I wanted to advertise the materiality of painting, as much as I’m advertising Davis’s particular brilliance.
The Davis prints that were at the Boiler were big billboard prints on vinyl—a bit rough—not particularly fine prints like the prints of the Tiepolo group, Painting Then For Now, which are really exquisite—Svetlana [Alpers], Barney [Kulok], and I worked on them for a year. We took time to adjust color balance, because it was shot in a mixture of daylight and artificial light, so we had to adjust the light to a specific degree that it would have just enough mixture of blue and yellow. It was an enormous effort to bring the prints to a very, very fine state. But for the Davis prints, they were good enough, and the good-enoughness is exactly how it should be.
RAIL: I have a special affinity for Stuart Davis, partly because he was the editor of a very influential magazine called Art Front, published between 1934 and 1937, which was created out of the need of both the Artists’ Committee of Action and the Artist Union to, I would say, unite artists of different political persuasions. It was a collective effort to secure the government federal support for the arts. Very admirable. At any rate, in looking at “Cycle,” “Roll,” and “Big Sample,” the three bigger paintings, measuring between 90 inches by 114 inches and 114 inches by 190 inches, I can’t identify from those fragments which painting of Davis’s they are from.
HYDE: Four of the five paintings are taken from “Report from Rockport” (1940), which really was a breakthrough painting for Davis. And the other one, which is a little bit more quiet, materially, is from the “Mural for Studio B” at WNYC (1939).
RAIL: They were called colonial cubist paintings. Yeah, and I know you have made large sculptures, for instance, one piece called “Cosmic Pillow” was shown in France and then was revised and installed again.
HYDE: It’s now part of the West Collection. But it’s not a sculpture.
RAIL: Oh right, inflated painting, environmentally speaking.
HYDE: No, it’s actually a very traditional form of painting. I am actually quite romantic about painting. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Italy looking at frescoes. And some of my favorite forms of frescoes are the ones painted on domes. And “Cosmic Pillow” was my way of painting a dome, or you could say it’s my dome painting. It was shown at Archie Rand’s garage in Fort Greene in 2002. He was generous enough to have loaned it to me for almost a year.
RAIL: The reason I’m asking is, given the monumental sizes of those paintings, and even though one usually associates Davis’s incredibly colorful, jazz-influenced paintings with boldness and spontaneity, he actually plans out his paintings very carefully in different stages with his preparatory drawings and sketches. Do you do the same?
HYDE: I don’t know what a study would constitute. I suppose by selecting fragments of the Davis paintings you may say it’s my way of making studies before deciding on the ones that will be blown up.
RAIL: That makes sense.
HYDE: And when they’re printed full-size I put them up in the studio and live with them for a while. I mean I don’t want them to be some sort of critique. I want them to be paintings. I learned that Mondrian would take bits of colored paper and put them around his studio and on his painting until he felt they had the right spatial relationship to each other. To figure out how to paint on the billboards I tape sheets of paper on the surface. Photography kind of breaks the bodily relation with the image and reconstitutes it elsewhere, as opposed to painting, which always has this one-to-one correspondence—that’s something I always want with my painting. With Davis it almost always begins with actually touching, physically touching the surfaces and starting to lay out paper in some sort of schema on the large surface.
RAIL: Were you at all surprised when they were blown up from small details into those gigantic images?
HYDE: I think with each of the Davis paintings, I’ve tried to deal with foreground and background issues—how the Davis sample fits within the composition in distinct ways. Sometimes my painting frames the Davis sample; sometimes my painting is as an object that sits on the surface; other times my painting feels like it sits in the Davis. Sometimes the painting I put on becomes the background and the Davis painting becomes the foreground. It’s fairly traditional in its formal construction.
RAIL: So you’re saying that sometimes they harmonize and sometimes they collide.
HYDE: Well, that’s jazz, isn’t it?
RAIL: Yes, it’s true! I also see the paintings as a beautiful tribute to Stuart Davis, the proto-pop artist. Actually “Roll” reminds me of the whimsy and poetry of Tom Nozkowski’s paintings. It’s actually the most intimate painting in the show, even though it’s the biggest one.
HYDE: Now I’ve known and admired Tom for years. In a way he’s a great model for what we all should be as painters.
RAIL: Tom’s distilled poetic sensibility does evoke Morandi’s.
HYDE: He’s a bit noisier.
RAIL: [Laughs.] He’s certainly more opinionated. Which brings me to what Alexi [Worth] said of your work: he considers you a disenchanted formalist, and that you think abstractly about abstraction. So, the last question, Jim, is that how disenchanted a formalist are you?
HYDE: I think disenchantment in painting is not actually disenchanting. There is something which is so durable and fascinating about painting that I think you can do a lot of paintings about disenchanting painting and still find them quite magical.