On the occasion of the painter’s recent exhibition at Cheim & Read, Bill Jensen welcomed the artist/contributing writer Peter Brock to his Williamsburg studio to talk about the new direction that has occurred in his work and more.
Peter Brock (Rail): The format of this new work seems like a radical departure for you. Can you tell us, for example, how the triptychs began?
Bill Jensen: The triptychs started after the last show in 2010. I always have trouble after shows. I’m very depressed, very angry, I feel like a she-wolf with my cubs being dragged away from me. But I know the best thing is just to come back up to the studio, try to get involved with the work again, let it take me someplace.
I came up to the studio after the last show and sat there. I had three panels on this wall, they were separated, two the same size and the middle one slightly smaller. I came to realize that my art was asking me to do something. For a while I have been making dark paintings. During this time I also made some lighter paintings that are very Chinese-influenced called “Dem Bones,” or “Chan Bones.” They are very different in tonality, light gray and off-white. They are also very hard to do. I thought maybe I could do two lighter paintings on each side and a dark one in the middle. I took the images of the three angels at Abraham’s table from Andrei Rublev’s “Trinity,” and I abstracted them to the shape that found its way into the left panel of the first triptych called “The Trinity.”
Rail: That’s the first triptych you did in your life?
Jensen: There was one in graduate school [laughs].
Rail: [Laughs.] What did that look like?
Jensen: It was actually black and dark gray.
Rail: So there is a history to this?
Jensen: Yes, sort of. But there are more important influences like Mark Rothko’s chapel paintings in Houston and Ronnie Bladen’s three-paneled painting “Untitled” (1961-61). In my studio I have an altar, which has been up here for 15 or 20 years. On it I have a large reproduction of de Kooning’s 1985 Triptych (“Untitled V,” “Untitled II,” “Untitled IV”), which was the only commission he did. It was included in his Museum of Modern Art show 15 years ago, and my wife, Margrit Lewczuk, and I visited many times. I finally realized that the panel on the left was past time, the middle was present time, and the right future time. I also have a book of Goya’s dark paintings, the figures flying across the landscape, sometimes double landscapes, and colossal figures. I have a book of frescos by José Clemente Orozco from the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara, Mexico, with the cupola of the “Man on Fire.” I have images from Clyfford Still and I have this wonderful book on Russian icon paintings, mainly Andrei Rublev. There’s one painting called “The Savior of the Fiery Eye” that they don’t know if it was Rublev or not. I think it is, it was at the Met about 30 years ago, and that icon painting taught me a lot about the emotional density a painting can have. But these books are always open.
Rail: It seems these ideas and these influences have been in you for a while, but only recently have they led you to create a triptych.
Jensen: I think the stars and planets just lined up and the art was really saying, “Bill, you should do this.” And I figured out a way how to do it. I also had to redesign the grounds, so I had Sarah Sands at Golden Paints (Williamsburg) make me a new ground made with safflower oil and a blend of lead and titanium that works very well. The second triptych I thought I could do would be two dark panels with a light one in the middle, which I titled “Mandate of Heaven.” I thought the image for the light panel would simply be the “Trinity” image in the upper right hand side, and in the bottom, the Trinity image is reversed and upside down. So it’s a very simple reflection, like in water, of that image from top to bottom.
Rail: Is the physical divide between the panels related to your decision to combine images from two bodies of work?
Jensen: I think with the physical dimension of the panels, I’m able to more radically change the tone, the darkness, the space, the time in the paintings than I could if it was one single painting. The ones that have only a painted division cannot create as dramatic a change. Physically I’m allowed to make very radical changes with separate panels. And also the drawn elements can go across from one panel to another. There’s lots of freedom you have with these panels—they can be turned around, the starting configuration of the drawing can be changed very quickly just by moving all the panels around.
Rail: Do you still think of these triptychs as past, present, and future, or has it become separated from linear time?
Jensen: I think de Kooning’s triptych was clearly about time being divided into past, present, and future. My triptychs are more ambiguous. The dark panels may evoke one time while the lighter panels are in another time.
Rail: And the physical break between them allows you to put two types of time together?
Jensen: Yes. A very important concept in Chinese paintings is emptiness and fullness. With my work I don’t know if darkness is empty or lightness is empty. It could also be that either darkness or lightness is full, because in Chinese philosophy, emptiness is not what we think of as emptiness. It is the place where everything will be going and then will be reborn. I think even our scientists are now starting to see that a void is not empty, it’s where everything will go and where everything will come out of. So the empty and full has always been a very interesting concept to me.
Rail: I wanted to ask about this notion of a sound in relation to painting, because you’ve talked before about a painting making a single sound with a single canvas, and that’s pretty clear to think about. But with a triptych, I wonder how you relate that notion of a single sound to a painting with multiple panels.
Jensen: I think painting makes a single audible sound; it’s not musical like a melody. When you have an intense emotional experience, all your senses are involved—everything is in play. In the triptychs maybe it’s a sound and reverberation, like echoing with the dark or light panels.
Rail: I want to talk about cave paintings, which I know are an inspiration to you.
Jensen: Well, they have been an inspiration to me for a long time, and the recent Werner Herzog film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which was fantastic, has certainly stirred up my excitement for them. I think the cave painters weren’t separate from the cosmos. In other words, they didn’t have to look at the bison and feel how the bison felt as we do as more modern painters. It was in them, they were the bison—and so these drawings are done with such ease. Margrit and I had this great experience going to the de Kooning show, spending a couple hours there, having lunch, and then going to see the Herzog movie for the first time. And it made me think, de Kooning’s as good as they are, they’re as good as de Kooning. Art doesn’t get better. It doesn’t improve. It just can be that intense. And de Kooning’s that intense, the cave painters are that intense. And I said, Margrit, I think some of these new images are coming from the cave paintings. She said, I think they’re coming from the cave walls.
Rail: I wanted to talk a little more about this notion of time in relation to the cave paintings, because as you remember there’s one point in the movie where Herzog points out that they discovered one of the paintings was actually a collaboration, two artists’ hands were there.
Jensen: Five thousand years apart!
Rail: Exactly! Five thousand years apart. And yet they were almost in dialogue. I wonder what you think about that?
Jensen: To me it just proves the point that they were so much part of the cosmos; everything was in the present. So one painter could come in and elaborate on another’s work. But I mean, I’ve never collaborated but it sounds fine to me. Five thousad years is a good space between the two.
Rail: [Laughs.] You’ve been painting for what, 45 years now?
Jensen: Yes, a long time.
Rail: How has that changed the way you think about time?
Jensen: Time is going faster, I mean it doesn’t slow down. In a lot of ways it’s harder to get over things, like when something tragic happens. When you’re younger you can recover much easier. I think when you’re older it sort of seeps more and stirs around longer, I don’t know.
Rail: It seems like this might be helping these paintings. They have deep roots.
Jensen: Well, I’ve always liked deep roots. Seepage is something that I’ve always believed in. You do your work, you make marks, images arrive, and then they get dissolved and they go back down and you dredge them up again. You put them down again, you erase them and you dredge them up again. That seepage, I think, brings a lot of emotional density to the work, it’s just the way I work.
Rail: Maybe it would be a good time to talk about the role of etchings and the etching process for you in this work because a lot of the diptychs in fact are derived from a particular etching.
Jensen: I was working on a series of etchings with Bill Goldston and Brian Berry out at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), and we had just finished this one etching called “Eclipse.” I don’t throw away my copper plates; I scrape them down and rework them. As I scraped down the plates, I saw this image being clarified in the scraping. And that’s what started this other series of work that I call “Sorrow” and the diptychs titled “Book of Songs.” The title “Sorrow” comes from the Book of Songs, which is an ancient Chinese book of poetry, maybe the oldest book of written poetry. And there’s a line in there that I love: “Sorrow clings to me like an unwashed dress.”
I’ve learned from working with many different etchers out of ULAE and I always really listen to them. Brian was very computer literate and he wanted me to work on the computer. Scan a drawing, cut it in half, stretch it out, turn it upside down, put it on a plate, work on it on a plate, take a photograph of it, and then rework it on the computer again. And so I feel that Bill Goldston, Brian, and myself have invented this image in “Sorrow” and we can do whatever we want with it. I started seeing other possibilities while working with the proofs for the etching “Sorrow.” At one point we put two images of the same etching together on the computer. This led to the diptych, “Book of Songs.” These images seemed almost like a Rorschach, like a mirror, or like the reflection of the Trinity image in the triptychs. I also found a way in which I could put different size panels together with a small separation between them to create another kind of space and time. In the triptychs this fracture was created with the edges of the dark and the light panels. I wanted to keep the first diptychs all black, white, and gray. So I figured out a way of putting them in paint.
Rail: Can you talk a little bit more about the choice of black, white, and gray for the diptychs?
Jensen: It came closer to the “Dem Bones” and “Chan Bones” paintings that I had been doing. People for a long time have said, and I felt this, too, that I etch like I paint, I etch like I draw, I draw like I paint, I paint like I draw; it is just one big cycle. There are different working techniques but the materials are all handled in a very visceral way in all three disciplines.
Rail: It makes sense that the image that spawned a lot of these diptychs was made from the physical erasure of a previous image on the copper plate.
Jensen: I’m very obsessed by these Trinity images and the ones in “Sorrow.” The image in “Sorrow” has a feeling of a Siren in the ocean, an old woman, and Mother Earth. Then it becomes this beautiful woman, a young woman with a beautiful back and beautiful breasts, then it comes down and it has several yoni, then it’s pregnant. It’s pregnant with both a male and a female. Then it comes down and has this huge erection. So it’s such a fertile image, it might be a tree, it might be a mushroom, it may be just an abstract shape. I just keep using the same image. I really haven’t been this repetitive about an image so obsessively since I did the spiral paintings when I first came to New York in 1970. I couldn’t, even though I tried to paint something else, I couldn’t. Maybe I won’t get out.
Rail: You kept developing the diptychs with the image from “Sorrow” in Italy this summer, right?
Jensen: Yeah, I did a lot of studies for these diptychs as drawings. Every time I go to Italy I’m very happy to be there. I’m very happy to be out of New York. Margrit and I just work all day long; we have a very simple life there. This was the first summer that I was really torn about being in Italy and away from these diptychs and triptychs. I felt I should be back there in New York. How am I going to bridge the ocean? And I finally did these drawings which are a long scroll-like shape but I put three together with a small space in between. There’s one drawing with three panels, a triptych. At this point, Margrit and I both thought that things were now coming together.
Rail: What were your feelings while making these triptychs and diptychs, because at times I would see you and it’s almost as if they were haunting you and weighing on your shoulders?
Jensen: I think my work always haunts me. People often ask me about the dark paintings and the feeling behind them. It’s actually a very easy place for me to go, but it is a very hard place to get out of. And some artists have never gotten out of it. I think that paintings are like warts on the inside of your skull.
In my paintings, I don’t know what’s empty or what’s full. What’s more haunting, the dark, the brown color, or the white like Moby Dick. I mean why is the white whale the most haunting color a whale can be? In the triptych “Substance, Spirit, and Shadow,” I tried to leave the two dark panels more open and the middle panel could be really dark. The middle panel for a long time was almost black. Yet it seemed the more profane the dark panels became, the more vulgar they became, the purer, more ethereal the center panel had to become. So I just kept bringing it back to white.
I’ve always believed that you let your art be a living force. It’s scary to do that because you’re not the captain of the ship, you’re actually sort of like the engineer that feeds the engine and you really want to be sensitive to what it needs. The work takes you to places that you could never have thought of going. And you do it by a day-in and day-out working process, every day you let it take you a little farther. Then in 20 years you look back on your work, you say, how did I ever get here? The image in “Sorrow” is a very bizarre image, I could never have dreamt it up.
Rail: I remember at one point you had a big batch of large stretchers made for these diptychs and triptychs. Did that feel scary to commit to the new format?
Jensen: I don’t know, it’s scary but it’s also exciting. I had to bring a lot of tools that I had used as a mason, big cement trowels. So it didn’t seem like it was that big a leap, I just had to use the bigger tools that I was used to as a mason and more paint. I had to redesign the stretchers because they are larger, there’s more stress on them. So the whole thing has been redesigned from the inside out. Next step is to redesign the studio.
Rail: Can you talk about how the spacing between the panels and their relative height appear to be very specific in each of the diptychs and triptychs?
Jensen: How much the left panel was below the right panel, or vice versa, became extremely important. There’s this half-inch difference that seems to tip the space up. It does something to the painting. When you see a reflection of a twig in water, it breaks and it moves. As a child that fracture terrified me, because it was going to another space and time. It was a twig, I knew it was solid, why was it broken in water? It’s a very scary thing when space gets fractured. So I think some of these panels have that kind of refraction in water because of the subtle shift in size.
Rail: There’s a striking clarity to the paintings that come from the etchings.
Jensen: To me etching has always been a severe way to draw. In the mid-’90s I did a series of black-line paintings—I thought about those when I was painting the diptychs. I tried to keep the same kind of severity with black, white, gray in the diptych paintings.
Rail: Is it fair to say that the process for the paintings that come from the etchings is quite different from those that begin in paint?
Jensen: Yes, I’ve never really used large cartoons like I did for the diptychs and triptychs. I have a lot of full size cartoons on vellum for that image in the “Trinity” paintings and for “Book of Songs.” I love de Kooning’s drawings on vellum; I think they’re fantastic. You can flip them left to right because you can see through them. I use full-scale drawings to transfer the image from the etching up onto the painting.
Rail: It seems very appropriate for these paintings that you had Renaissance techniques alongside a computer because they seem both primordial and also post-apocalyptic.
Jensen: Yes, John Elderfield had a word for it: atavistic. It’s something primitive that when it’s pulled forward in time makes people uncomfortable.
Rail: It’s a valuable thing to have those aspects of the past brought forward.
Jensen: Yes, everything is contemporary. Everything is contemporaneous. That’s the way the pre-historic people thought. They didn’t have this idea about history of time and back time and forward time, everything was contemporaneous, everything was in the present moment.
Rail: So painting is always in the present?
Jensen: I think painting when it’s brought forward is always in the present but it can come from the past, it can come from the future, but it always demands present time.
Rail: You and Margrit recently took a trip to Mali, to Timbuktu, to attend the Festifal in the Desert. Did this trip affect your work?
Jensen: Bamako’s like living in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, it is so insane. But also on every street corner is a Robert Rauschenberg combine. I mean the way they smash material together to make signs or whatever they need to do, it’s just urgent and it’s up there and it’s beautiful and it’s sincere. So that whole experience was incredible. The color from Mali and the savanna opened up the paintings in a new way.
Rail: I’m thinking again of your decision to make these paintings from the etchings in black and white. They have a strange sense of light, as if they’re glowing from within.
Jensen: I think it comes from the grounds. By applying these grounds with a trowel, almost like a plaster wall, they become very alive with just a few marks on them. In the past I used masonry tools to make paintings, now I feel that I’m making walls that become paintings with the same tools.
Rail: It’s interesting that you can be very engaged with color but also very interested in darkness and in pure light.
Jensen: But I think everything is color. I did feel like I was on a starvation diet during these triptychs last year and even now. I tried a couple of diptychs with color but it didn’t work. Now I have all these starts and the colors may enter somehow, but I don’t know how it’s going to feel yet.
Rail: As your former student, I wanted to ask about your approach to teaching. You took some of us for a walk in the woods in Vermont almost a year ago and said that this is how art should be taught.
Jensen: I’ve always thought, you can not teach the art part of art, you can’t do it because you can’t even talk about it. So one way of guiding young artists is to just surround them with intense art, deep art, meaningful art, from the past, from contemporary times, whatever it is, from films, from books, from anywhere. When we all went up to Vermont it wasn’t only the woods, it was going up to the Orozco murals at Dartmouth, going into the room with you, seeing the Orozcos, and then my son Russell runs a farm an hour away, we went there for the weekend, we had your tamale dinner and Margrit’s chili, we had a dance party, we spent about three days together up there. It was winter, we had this beautiful walk in the woods. So I started thinking about art and students and I thought, just surround them with art, walk in the woods, be with them. You can’t talk about art, but you can kind of make this mist about it around the students. And I think that’s the healthiest way to be, so I hope it rubs off.
Rail: I hope so, too.