Over the past few months, Jacob Kassay and Alex Bacon have been having an extended discussion about the delicate balance Kassay’s work strikes between attention to aesthetic form and the conceptual rigor that motivates it. In New York, Kassay has a solo show at 303 Gallery, and two of his paintings are featured in Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100. Concurrently, he also has a show at Off Vendome in Düsseldorf.
Alex Bacon (Rail): What were the first paintings that you made? Were they the silver paintings?
Jacob Kassay: Yeah, those were the first paintings I ever made. I got interested in Piero Manzoni’s achromes. There was a fiberglass one on view at MoMA at the time. It was the first one I had seen and, curious about the term “achrome,” I consulted Wikipedia, which was in its infancy then, and it said “something that resists properties of absorbing color.” I tried to think of other ways to resist—as Manzoni’s achromes do—any sort of fixed or applied quality and so I wanted to make something which reflected its surroundings back onto the space in which it was exhibited.
Rail: How did you think you could accomplish this sort of opposition within the language of painting?
Kassay: The paintings may defer responsibility to the rest of the room. There is a formal relationship that they have within themselves, like having the qualities of a worked surface, but this also extends to incorporate anything that is absorbed by the surface—color, light, etc. But more than a reflection, these paintings act as lenses that “color” what gets caught on their surfaces. Within the painting’s limits you recognize portions of something that might belong to one’s environment.
Rail: For me, this means that your paintings actively pose the question—what does it mean to be represented? In a way they’re suspended between representation and abstraction, as what gets caught in their surfaces is quite literally re-presented. This kind of aesthetic activity is suspended somewhere between the “real” world that is reflected, and the particular aesthetic world a painting inhabits as an always somewhat separate and autonomous thing.
Kassay: There’s something to be experienced in the actual space in which the work is installed, and then in the surface of the work itself. I found the way that the paintings collapsed these two experiences into one another compelling. I have a pretty severe case of astigmatism and this inability to recognize where the borders between one object and another are drawn has always conditioned what I see. With the paintings, this blurring reminds you that there are other things that are informing the work which are atmospheric. The surface of the work moves into attention and recedes from it, always oscillating. It often reminds me of the autofocus of a digital camera, which doesn’t know what to do with a silver painting’s surface when I’m trying to document the work. It goes in and out, unable to separate the painting’s present surroundings from the object itself.
Rail: It seems that you haven’t yet exhausted the way the silver paintings interact with these ideas, right?
Kassay: I haven’t. I’ll continue as long as there are new ways that they can present themselves in different spaces, in different modes. Sometimes they seem most appropriate in high volume, using their apparent similarity as one note over and over again. In this configuration, the overall effect is like that of a marbleized tone in the room. Are you familiar with the piece “In C” (1964), by Terry Riley? It’s the same note over and over again, but there are these phantom harmonies that come through by that repetition and the sounds start to undulate according to the shape of the room. In other cases, a room may only require two or three paintings.
Rail: Your formal concerns appear to have an equally strong conceptual analogue. This is something that aligns you with a figure such as Ad Reinhardt, who rigorously conceived of his work along both lines.
Kassay: Reinhardt was an inveterate thinker, about his own work at least, and that’s something I tried to absorb into my own practice from a very early point. In the first round of paintings I made as a student, I felt that I was dealing with an object that was similar to those black paintings. With Reinhardt, we’re not talking about a solely retinal experience; we’re talking about something that is also an absolutist schema on what a painting should be, which posits how it should function and how it should be understood.
Rail: Right. I think that’s what links you and Reinhardt together—that sense in which the paintings are never fully optical; they’re never fully material. In that sense they have all these different lives; they function in these different ways; they’re never fully translatable as one thing. Given your concern with the phenomenology of the work, how does this inform your approach to the materials of painting?
Kassay: Well, initially I was making paintings after recognizing that acrylic paint is a plastic which could be coated with a catalyst for electroplating. Paint is just one material available in the construction of a surface. I never approached painting from the point of view that I needed to work on a surface for any certain amount of time. I usually work on a surface for a very little amount of time and every other part of the process of constructing the painting is equal. I like the idea that in the paintings I’m making right now it takes the same amount of time for the stretcher, as it does for the stretching, as it does for the priming, the final surface, the photographing of it, etc. It’s like using-all-the-parts-of-the-buffalo.
Rail: If every one of these aspects is truly equivalent for you, do you feel that it is important that all aspects of this trajectory—from the building of the stretcher to putting it on the gallery wall—are clear to the viewer when they’re in front of the work?
Kassay: No. Because the viewer is never at the end point of a work but more of a node in its movement, I don’t believe that the painting has to present a totalization of all the processes that preceded it. When the parts are taken in isolation, there are certainly points that are more privileged or active in the sum of the work, but the painting never remains complete. Even in storage, the work is never fully inert.
Rail: Could you expand on that?
Kassay: Well, with the installation at the Kitchen (Untitled (disambiguation)), I put work throughout the building in places where paintings rarely rest—such as in the video archive, or in the lobby—to emphasize their presentation as an almost momentary, contingent stage. The paintings were made so that they could be moved easily around the space and remain variable to the activity of the environment.
Rail: So in a way is it potentially hubris on the part of the artist to imagine that they know everything about the life of the work? Can a work ever account for all the ways in which networks of production, distribution, and reception enmesh it?
Kassay: Whether it’s possible or not is a question that will remain forever debatable as those contexts change. Either way, it’s mostly an issue of how rather than if. When you introduce a painting into any kind of network, its trajectory will never align to your expectations. It’s going to have this entropic course from one point to another, as an object as well as information, which cannot be plotted. Since the work is always subject to all sorts of unforeseen mediations, you have to ease your expectations of how that course will develop.
Rail: Nonetheless, it seems that what you stake out as an important role for the artist today is to try to acknowledge the multiple lives lived by a painting. The artist should not try to predict the work’s future and, in a way, he or she needs to release the work from a certain set of determinations for it to move from one place to the next—from the storeroom to the gallery, to the photographer’s studio, etc. But at the same time the artist’s task is to create the kind of work that can operate at a consistently rigorous level throughout these various stages of its “life,” right? From the way it interacts with the photographer’s camera, or the architecture of the space in which it is hung, for example. Given that they deal with where paintings begin and end, these considerations seem relevant to your most recent body of work. With these works, you take pieces of canvas leftover from the process of making other paintings, and then stretch them on supports shaped to fit the exact contours of each remnant of fabric.
Kassay: Yes, the idea was to give these peripheral scraps some kind of literal support so that they can be acknowledged as equal to the more traditionally “finished” painting whose canvas they were ripped from.
Rail: Is the stretcher the most important part of those paintings for you, then? Rather than the fabric? Even though the fabric is what originally inspired the painting because it dictated the shape of the work.
Kassay: Yeah. The shaped stretchers that were originally made to fit each of these discards are now being repeated but stretched with new canvas and painted. Now, I’m using the irregular stretchers not as supports for specific artifacts of fabric, but as templates with an undetermined number of possible iterations. Using the stretchers in this way parallels the standardized format of a rectangular support in painting, while providing an alternative to it. The bones remain the same, but the skin changes.
Rail: How is it that you began to paint and title these?
Kassay: Once I recognized that there was a limited sum of materials to use for these paintings, I worked out several ways of extending or expanding what I had already developed. Now, I’m very attuned to these basic activities that one begins a painting with, such as cutting fabric. Instead of approaching a roll of canvas as a set of separate, intentional units, I argue with myself over the vanity of that entire operation. When you separate a material, why is one side better than the other? Why is one used and one wasted, why make such projections? After a few years of making stretchers for these remnants, I’ve catalogued all their shapes so that they can be remade. While making supports directly for the scraps ejected a certain amount of intention from painting, I wanted to find a way in which similar rote procedures could be applied to other gestures of these supposedly incidental objects and see what these diminishing returns would be. Instead of gesture, what’s at work is selection—the titles and surfaces act as an auto-fill that can be repeated ad nauseam.
Rail: This mode of seriality makes me think that throughout your work—from the silver paintings up to the recent irregularly shaped work—there is an interest in the formal and conceptual potential of a specific idea repeated in a potentially infinite and expandable sequence. You set the sequence to remain open rather than closed. The framework for old Minimalist or Conceptual art typically conceived of the system as closed, each serial iteration adding up to a principal statement, and in order to achieve this, all works ideally need to be present with one another. An example would be Sol LeWitt’s permutations of a cube. However, with your work, each individual piece can expand or contract the horizon of the series, rendering its development less directional and more complex.
Kassay: When I learned about how artists like LeWitt would ambitiously pursue a closed system to a point of exhaustion, the most important part seemed to be the ways in which these orders were designed to deny their own inevitable contingencies and vulnerabilities. So when I see a damaged, unfinished cube, its failure to illustrate itself as an element of an ideal system in turn allows it to become untethered from the narrow designs from which it was conceived. Perhaps then a degree of autonomy is returned to the object. A system is only as interesting as its contradictions and there’s a great deal of personal satisfaction that can come when forms like these escape calculation.
Rail: What is the relationship between the show at 303 and the earlier one at the Kitchen? Many elements from the earlier show reappear, but take on different forms in the current one.
Kassay: The show at the Kitchen was used as a pivot point towards this new painted and titled work, outlining its structure. In a more literal sense, there was a wall that was built in the Kitchen to create a corridor and for the 303 show, it was used as a partition for a hall in the gallery. I wanted to see how parts of an exhibition could live past their temporary display. In that same show at the Kitchen, there were things which were also not announced as work but made with the same considerations as the wall and the paintings. There were benches in the room, made to resemble Bertoia benches, but I think they passed off well enough that no one recognized they were facsimiles and no one brought it up. These parts of the show were not intended as some sort of smug footnote or camouflaged strategy—I was interested in how attention would diffuse itself differently over these details and what elapsed recognitions do to one’s experience. Steve Martin used to refer to these types of built in ricochets as “refrigerator moments.” He would set up jokes that would fail on stage but linger long enough to bubble up again once the audience member opened his or her refrigerator at home—having had all the time in between to then recognize that the performance had already nested itself in their thoughts.
Rail: How do you arrive at the particular titles for these works? There seems to be something of an attempt to find neutral, non-associative titles, but by venturing into phrasing and possibly personal references, their meaning and intention become somewhat less stable. What kind of relation do you want them to have to the works on whose sides they are inscribed? Are they a key to anything in the work, merely a form of identification of one work versus another (as Ryman, for example, claims for his titles)? Or are they meant to be appreciated for their own sake—alongside, but not inherent to the works?
Kassay: By writing them on and scaling them to the edges of the paintings, the titles are presented around the object rather than from behind. Typically, a painting’s surface conceals the work’s information like a closed folder. All the details that identify, author, locate, value, and describe the painting—such as its materials and dimensions—are hidden by its wrapper. So, by putting the titles on the side, I wanted to move the paintings out of the domain of the image—a flat, scaleless surface—into a more planar space where the edge has as much content as the face of the paintings. The titles can’t help but be personal, but actually they are more related to the way in which the surfaces of the paintings are painted with an arbitrary hue—a selection of features which could go on any number of paintings but happen to be on this one. The titles are there to make you look around the work and foreground their purpose as being purely indexical and mnemonic, as you suggest. The paintings begin from scraps and so it made sense to pair this with language which is fragmentary and torn far from its context.
Rail: Given this issue of coherence, are you interested in having any sort of continuity from one work to the next? Do you, for example, hope that each of your exhibitions will be considered as internally consistent, but ultimately very different from one another? Or is it important that in whatever the diversity of objects you might produce, there’s a clear recognition of their relation and timeline?
Kassay: That’s something I can’t predict. I have my short-term focuses with the work—most go unrecognized, which is fine. Things like “signature” and strategy are speculations developed by others, sometimes very quickly or over longer periods of time.
Rail: What concern, if any, do you have for the future or longevity of your work in a material sense? Are you involved with, or even interested in, how the work will hold up over time? Whether that is the silver tarnishing, or the unmarked linen staining, or any other conservation issues. What role do you see for yourself in the future of your work as it circulates in the world?
Kassay: I don’t care what happens to the work. If I ever wanted to display work that looked brand new, I would make it brand new.
ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.