The Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation invited artist Joyce Pensato and Rail Publisher and Sharpe artist advisory board member Phong Bui to speak before an audience of the Sharpe’s 2012–13 space program recipients and other visitors to their Spring ’13 open studios. Pensato’s exhibition Joyce Pensato: I KILLED KENNY will be organized by Jeffrey Uslipe, Santa Monica Museum of Art (June 1 – August 17, 2013).
Phong Bui (Rail): You’re one of the few people I know who grew up in Brooklyn.
Joyce Pensato: I never got out of Brooklyn. That’s a fact. Italian-Americans of my generation never liked to move far from home—I’m still on the fucking L train. [Laughs.]
Rail: Yet most of those who move out of Brooklyn never want to come back.
Pensato: That was my thinking in the late ’70s; I thought the only place I could actually afford was Avenue C or D or whatever. I was worried that nobody would go there to see my work. But then everybody moved there, just as people always move wherever artists do, so the neighborhood got crowded, and the rent went up. So I decided to move to East Williamsburg in the summer of 1979, where I still am now. But I grew up where all the kids are now going to, Bushwick—and I will never go back to Bushwick no matter how popular it gets. [Laughs.]
Rail: When were you first exposed to art?
Pensato: Through my father. My father was a printmaker and was always bringing materials home, and encouraging the arts. I told my parents if I failed art school I would become a secretary, and God knows who would ever hire me as anything, never mind as a secretary. [Laughs.]
Rail: So did you eventually manage to study commercial arts such as illustration or graphic design?
Pensato: I was encouraged to study fashion illustration, or record cover designs, as women were encouraged to do in those days, but I didn’t have the right hand for it, unfortunately.
Rail: You mean you didn’t have a steady hand.
Pensato: Yeah, you had to draw free hand and pay attention to details, and I was really bad at that. It wasn’t my thing but I had a nice teacher, Ms. Shore, who said you don’t have to do commercial art, there’s another world called fine arts. And I was really lucky to get a hold of it, just in time.
Rail: What happened from that point onward?
Pensato: I got a scholarship to an art school and thought I knew more than the teachers, so I dropped out. Then, after I realized I knew nothing, I decided to enroll at the Art Students League, where I studied with Morris Kantor, who taught Rauschenberg. I just thought at the time I could take a fashion class in the morning, and study with Kantor in the afternoon. But on the first day of fashion class, the instructor told me I’d be better off taking another class, because I was really bad with details, like buttons, zippers, and whatever. Whereas in Kantor’s class it was love at first sight. I knew that was it. So I gave up my idea of being in the fashion industry and just focused on art. I’ll tell you one sweet story about Morris Kantor. He was a grandfatherly gentleman with a nicely trimmed mustache, big flat feet, and a thick Russian-Jewish accent. I remember going to the MoMA and seeing Matisse’s paintings and thinking, “Oh, my God, this is the most fantastic thing I ever saw, and I could do this.” So I went back and painted my nude model in blue, red, and yellow, and I was like, “Wow, I am Matisse now.” So he said to me, “Let’s bring the painting out into the hallway and look at it.” He looked at it for a good while, and said, “What you’re actually giving me is a tomato and a grape?” [Laughs.] It took me another six months before showing him more work after that. In the mean time, I met this young man working part time at a lamp-decorating factory who I had a crush on, and he said, “Forget about Kantor, you have to go to the Studio School.” So I applied around 1969 or ’70, when Morty (Morton) Feldman was the dean, and I got rejected. I’ll never forget what Morty said: “We don’t know what to do with you; I can’t tell what you’re doing.” Then I went back to the League, got this travel grant, travelled in Europe, and realized I didn’t know anything, and that I needed to have structure in my life. After traveling for one year, I reapplied to the Studio School again in ’73. Luckily by that time Morty had just left, so that was how my romance with the Studio School got started.
Rail: I’ve wanted this conversation for a long time for several reasons, one being that we both went to the Studio School. We attended at different times but studied with some of the same teachers.
Pensato: Yeah, you replaced me as Mercedes Matter’s favorite.
Rail: Mercedes was not exactly that nice to me.
Pensato: That’s not what she told me.
Rail: Well, I told Irving (Sandler) not long ago that once I was drawing from the nude model, and she came over and she erased my drawing, not once, not twice, but three times. I got so upset that I asked her why she was being so aggressive. She said I didn’t pay any attention to the negative space, and that the figure in relationship to the ladder and the platform was far too short and small. I said, true but you are 5’11” and I’m 5’3”. You see things differently up there than the way I see them down here. [Laughs.] At any rate, I ran into Bobby Bordo on the Bedford Avenue stop off the L a month ago, and he told me your response to Christopher Wool’s paintings in his 2001 show at Luhring Augustine, which introduced gestural spray paint with wiping or erasing as the integral element of his work. Apparently you said to Bobby, “He finally got it.” Can you elaborate on that comment a bit?
Pensato: I was in the same seminar with Bobby so he knew the language of the Studio School. I just felt that after his text and silkscreen paintings Christopher had finally found his way back to what he once learned.
Rail: But he did it by adding to what he had learned and bringing it forward, instead of staying put in one stagnant place, which can turn into a dead-end defensive stance.
Pensato: Christopher—who I call Wooly—was a young student, like 18, and I was older, when we first met in the summer of 1973. We shared a studio and became life long friends because we support each other’s work. Another important thing that happened at the time was Christopher introduced me to his dad, Ira, a doctor and a collector, who became my first collector. Even though Christopher is much younger than me, I always think of him as my older brother. He would always get people to come to my studio. It certainly took many years for my ship to come, but it came finally, and I owe it to Christopher and all of my friends who have supported me all along.
Rail: How long were you there at the Studio School?
Pensato: Only six years. [Laughs.] After the first two years they threw me out in the middle of the summer, but I came back for four more years as an alumni in residence. How long were you there?
Rail: Only for two years. I felt that I understood the teaching in my first year, and in the second year I felt like I was in a mental institution, even though I knew the wider world existed beyond the walls of the school.
Pensato: It’s so true. It was a place where you went in and you didn’t know what time it was, where you were. You were sort of locked in.
Rail: You once described the school’s philosophy to Loren Munk as painting like de Kooning and drawing like Giacometti. What kinds of things were you making then? Mostly figurative drawings? Or were you making paintings at the same time?
Pensato: Well, in order to get a studio—instead of being thrown in with the model and 40 other people or whatever—I was doing abstract painting, but I never could get the whole canvas working. Mercedes said to me, I want you to work from something, I don’t care what, and use smaller brushes. And I said, okay, as long as I don’t have to paint the still life with apples and pears like what everyone else was doing. Since I loved pop culture and discarded things, I filled my studio full of debris.
Rail: Which became your subject matter. Mercedes was cool for letting you do what you really wanted.
Pensato: I know. I was also lucky that I had my own studio, which I filled with props in one space and then it became the whole room. I remember Mercedes would drag in visitors not to see my paintings, but to see the set-up. [Laughs.]
Rail: Do you think that your humor and interest in pop culture generate a kind of lightness that lessens the heaviness or burden of the Abstract Expressionist legacy, on top of the existential doubts of Giacometti which the Studio is usually associated with?
Pensato: Yes, I think so.
Rail: And you discovered Batman while you were there as a student?
Pensato: Yes. I discovered Batman by chance because I was looking for pop culture materials to work with.
Rail: What year was this?
Pensato: Around ’76. Actually Mercedes, who was using her traditional Cézanne/Hofmann combined methods in her teaching, encouraged me and was very supportive when I started Batman. She would bring people around to show them what I was doing. Whatever I discovered, whatever I was doing excited her, actually.
Rail: How would you describe the work in those days?
Pensato: I thought of them as still lifes. I finally got what all the teachers were talking about. They all said, “Oh, don’t forget the space in the middle.” Once there was a life-size Batman cut out on the floor with a chair on top of it. They were all telling me to make it energized as space, and I did.
Rail: Were you drawing and painting at the same time? And did you feel they were in some ways integrated as you wished them to be?
Pensato: Not really. I started out drawing first with charcoal, because charcoal was the number one thing at the Studio School. Then when I tried painting with color I would just lose all the graphic elements. I couldn’t get the same clarity of forms in space as I could with my drawing. It took me until 1990 to realize the color was not working for me. I remember asking Christopher what paint he was using, and he said 1Shot enamel paint. It was a paint I didn’t know anything about, so I thought I couldn’t screw it up.
Rail: You mean the consistency of the paint, how fast or slow its drying condition, and what sorts of surfaces to paint on, and so on?
Pensato: Yes, all of those things. Eventually black and white enamel became my medium and language.
Rail: Right. Were you aware of Pollock’s use of enamel as early as 1947, say “Galaxy” or “Full Fathom Five,” or de Kooning’s amazing black paintings of 1948 like “Black Friday” or “Dark Pond”?
Pensato: Yes, I was aware of them. And I love them all. But I just realized early on some of the artists are great with colors, but I’m not, so I’m better off without it.
Rail: It’s definitely important to know your limitations so you can explore them more effectively. Anyway, what about Franz Kline with his use of black and white?
Pensato: Oh, I love Kline. I love all of his paintings.
Rail: So would you identify more with Kline’s gestures than de Kooning’s?
Pensato: Yes, I identify more with Kline for sure.
Rail: For what reason?
Pensato: His paintings are simple and clear with big gestures.
Rail: Did you ever study with Philip Guston?
Pensato: Not really. The great teacher I had at the Studio School was this young teacher named Steven Sloman, who loved Guston, and he brought his love of Guston to all the students who were studying with him.
Rail: By then Guston was already making full-tilt figuration.
Pensato: Exactly. Guston was teaching at Boston University but he would come in every once in a while at the Studio School and give a critique. He would come in and give a critique with a bottle of bourbon or some other alcoholic beverage—I don’t know whatever it was—while smoking away, the critiques would get better and better. [Laughter.] And listening to his stories was endearing.
Rail: What did you show him?
Pensato: I showed him this horrible abstract painting, which was the only time he didn’t like something. He said the worst thing you could say at the Studio School was, “You’re having a party.” [Laughs.] I remember thinking, “Oh, if I could throw myself out the window, I would do it.” Having a party at the Studio School meant you weren’t a serious artist. Then I switched brushes, and painted even more abstractly, but a bit more organized. When he came for another crit he liked it. It was a big relief.
Rail: Were you able to relate to him about his interest in comics?
Pensato: Oh yes, we got so excited by talking about what he was working on. He was in Rome and he loved Fellini movies. He was a big fan of Fellini. And Krazy Kat. All the students loved to listen to his excitement, whether about painting or movies.
Rail: Did you also take Nic Carone’s drawing class?
Pensato: I did but I left after one class, partly because I never understood what he was saying. Nic never forgave me for it actually.
Rail: How would you describe your relationship with Joan Mitchell?
Pensato: I met Joan around 1979 with Carl Plansky, a year before I left the Studio School. We all became very close to Joan. She would invite us over for the whole summer in Vétheuil, which I used to call Fresh Air Club. And my God, she was really tough. I remember she said to me, “Do you want to be like those German Expressionists with no color, no light, or do you want to be like a French painter like Cézanne or Matisse?” “Oh, no, Joan. I want to be a French painter.” [Laughs.] “I don’t want to be a German Expressionist.” This is when I was over there, so brainwashed by her presence like we all were. This is before therapy. After I got back, I realized I was one of the German Expressionists.
Rail: Two years ago, I had a conversation here at Marie Walsh Sharpe open studios with Katy Siegel about her book Since ’45: America and the Making of Contemporary Art, and at one point she talked about the theme ofblack and white, which refers to different things, like the apocalyptic light of Protestant Evangelical ecstasy, the American gothic, the strong sun of the Southwest that creates blinding light and casts deep shadows, and above all the issue of race—the obsession of writers like Melville and Faulkner. I’m wondering how you see your attraction to black and white, whether there are other references beyond the appeal of black and white as colors?
Pensato: I’m probably brain dead by now from using black and white enamel. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe it began with my strong connection to black culture, which I have yet to analyze, but perhaps it has something to do with my Sicilian roots. I also love the culture of immigrants. When I was a little girl I wanted to be Irish because I thought being Irish was very American. Then when I became a teenager I wanted to be Jewish because they were very cultured. They loved art, literature, music, theater, and books, and so on. And recently, in the last 10 years or so, I’ve wanted to be black. I don’t want to be American-Sicilian.
Rail: I can certainly identify with the desire to be black. I’ve been obsessed with Delta Blues since I first heard it as a kid in Vietnam. I feel the same way about basketball. I’m always dreaming about my next life, if I get to come back as a 6’10” power forward like Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins who could dunk like nobody’s business.
Pensato: I just don’t see it? [Laughs.] But I can sympathize, as I’m getting older and shorter, I think very bold, very big, and very black.
Rail: Is that the reason why Batman appealed to you rather than, let’s say, Spider-Man or Thor?
Pensato: I did try with Spider-Man, but he is too much like a ballerina. Batman is like tough, straight, I’m here. This is it, I’m going to break down the house or whatever. Whereas, Spider-Man would jump around, lots of circling around. He’s too soft. I also tried with Superman but he was too normal.
Rail: No Robin?
Pensato: No, forget about it.
Rail: I have a few technical questions about enamel. We know that Pollock used Duco brand and de Kooning maybe Dutch Boy. What brand do you use?
Pensato: Most artists who paint with enamel prefer 1Shot Enamel paints, because they have the most pigment in them. I personally like the look of it, wet yet sticky and tough. I also like the way they splash. Recently I’ve been working with all kinds of drips on photos, which I feel have a connection to boxing and violence.
Rail: How would you describe your process? Do you make preparatory drawings or do you paint directly right on to the canvas?
Pensato: First I see the canvas’s size, then I connect that size to something I can look at, like a Batman mask or a photograph or a plastic doll of Mickey Mouse. Then I start painting as if I’m making the drawing all at once. Right now I’m getting really obsessed with moustaches and eyebrows. I’ve been painting Homer Simpson with bushy eyebrows. I love Homer. He’s got big eyes and a big head.
Rail: I particularly love the painting “2012 Batman” from your last exhibit Batman Returns at Friedrich Petzel.
Pensato: Oh, the one with a little color.
Rail: Yes, partly because you painted the reversal of black and white—like de Kooning’s “Dark Pond” to his “Attic”; it became white and black. Then there are the frontal Mickey Mouse and Homer faces, more aggressively compressed than before. In fact, in some cases you can hardly recognize their faces anymore. I’d like to think since the last four, five years that various degrees of abstraction are being explored and are more present than before.
Pensato: True, my paintings are getting more abstract. I love the play where you can’t tell which is in or out, which is the front or back. It’s only recently that I have been introducing color. I realized I could work with colors now because in the drawings, I have been using a little bit of color pastel, especially when I beat the image down by drawing and redrawing so much that a little hint of color could bring the image alive again. But it doesn’t always work when the beating has gone too far.
Rail: That’s a normal description I often hear about your drawing: “beating down,” “grinding down,” “battered,” “torn,” “rubbed,” and so on.
Pensato: It takes a long time to be so simple, because there is so much history underneath that, and to get it just right is a real trick. If I do anything more to it than needed, it’s gone.
Rail: Which brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s famous “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953). When Rauschenberg went to de Kooning’s studio and proposed the idea to him, de Kooning gave him a drawing that he had worked on a long time with all kinds of materials on it—charcoal, pencil, chalk, oil crayon, and so on—and it took Rauschenberg with an arsenal of erasers two solid weeks to erase de Kooning’s drawing.
Pensato: Because it’s layered with a long history. I mean, there’s the ghost of de Kooning and it doesn’t matter how hard Rauschenberg tries to get rid of it; he just can’t.
Rail: Would you regard your drawing as a separate activity from your painting?
Pensato: No. It’s all the same. To me the drawings are about going into the space and the surface of the paper, whereas with the paintings it’s about building it out. To me it’s all about drawing. Maybe with my painting, I’m drawing with a paintbrush and with my drawing, I’m drawing with charcoal.
Rail: That’s a very cool distinction. Again, I’d like to mention that in your last exhibit in addition to the paintings, there were endless objects, materials like milk crates, dolls, masks, paint cans, memorabilia of all sorts with paint drips on them, as well as parts of the studio’s wall and floor, all of which made an exciting installation from your last exhibit. I couldn’t help but think of Paul McCarthy’s video work “Painter” (1995).
Pensato: Oh—that’s my favorite video. “Where’s my money?” he keeps saying. [Laughs.] I didn’t say any of that! He’s just mumbling most of the time. I love Paul, whom I met at Luhring Augustine in ’92. When I saw his toys collection, I said, “You didn’t go into my studio and take my boxes of toys, did you, because they look exactly like mine?” Anyway, I felt a strong connection with him because of his messiness, although now he’s gotten a bit cleaned up in recent years.
Irving Sandler [From the audience]: I once moderated a panel that Paul McCarthy was on. At one point, I turned to him and said, “Do you find your work bizarre?” He said, “Bizarre? What makes you say that?” He was playing it absolutely straight. It was the best piece of performance art I think I’ve ever seen.
Pensato: Yeah, I love Paul, just like I love other bad boys.
Rail: Would Mike Kelley fall into that category?
Pensato: Yeah, Mike, also Howie and Howard Stern’s BaBa Booey. I love them all.
Rail: What will you show in the SMMoA exhibition?
Pensato: It’ll be a mixture of huge paintings and really big charcoal drawings made site-specifically on the gallery walls. I still can’t get over the fact that I now have assistants. I mean, if I don’t like a mark I just made, I can ask my assistant to go up the ladder and erase it for me, and she will just do it. It’s like I can’t believe this is happening to me. [Laughs.] But anyway, some of the site-specific drawings are very big, maybe up to 30 feet, then there will be a bunch of paintings and drawings from the ’90s, and some recent ones as well. Oh, I’ll actually be showing a series of paint-splattered collages.
Rail: You mean the splattered papers, photographs, reproductions of all sorts of images from the sources you love the most like the Simpsons and South Park? Also, Robert de Niro in Raging Bull whom you met at the ceremony for the Robert de Niro, Sr. Award (named after his father), which you won this year. How cool is that? I thought he really had a genuinely good time meeting you.
Pensato: I did warn him about me. I said, “I stalk movie stars like the way Lucille Ball does when she meets a movie star.” [Laughs.]
Rail: Last question: Would whatever you were able to salvage from the last studio be a fruitful source for the new collages, and maybe a metaphor for creating a new beginning?
Pensato: Absolutely. Everything in the Olive studio has 30 years of paint or some kinds of patina on them. And that’s part of my history. But I’m very excited about creating a new history. It’s another beginning for sure.