Trevor Winkfield’s idiosyncratic and widely roaming intelligence is evident throughout his career, including publishing projects like Juillard (1968 – 72) and The Sienese Shredder (2006 – 2010), across his distinctive paintings, and within his many art essays. Two books have just been published: How I Became a Painter (Pressed Wafer), a book-length conversation with poet Miles Champion, and Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield (1990 – 2009) (The Song Cave). To mark the occasion, Winkfield met with Jarrett Earnest in his Dumbo studio to discuss his life as both a writer and a painter.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Your essay on Chardin is one of my favorites in Georges Braque. You describe Chardin’s paintings thus: “They’re so delicious you could lick them, and in my misspent youth I did.” In your interview with Miles Champion, you say, “I can’t say I’ve ever been tempted to eat—or lick—a Chardin, though de Chirico is another matter.” Did you, or did you not, lick a Chardin?
Trevor Winkfield: Well, yes, I must confess that I did, in the National Gallery in 1961. The reason I couldn’t lick the de Chiricos was because they were kept safely behind glass in the Museum of Modern Art. Can I tell you something naughty, branching off slightly? In the late ’50s and early ’60s art was still relatively cheap and relatively unguarded—for instance, when I first went to Leeds College of Art in 1960, there was a loan exhibition of Cézanne watercolors in the totally unguarded foyer, hung without any security, on boards. Even then my little criminal mind thought, “I could just take one of these!” Though, as you know, in 1959, when I was just 15, I pilgrimaged through the snow to Schwitters’s Merzbarn in the Lake District, where I did purloin a Merz construction. It was lying on a dusty shelf and had been there, neglected, since Schwitters had abandoned it 10 years before.
Rail: What became of it?
Winkfield: I kept it in my sock drawer at home, which is where all naughty boys keep their darkest secrets. When we moved to a new house I asked my mother what had happened to it, and attempted to describe it: a rusty shoe-polish tin holding a piece of sealing wax, a length of string and a blue plastic cup handle. She said, “Oh, that piece of rubbish, I threw it out.” So that was the end of my Schwitters, lost to both myself and to history.
Rail: How many other works of art have you licked?
Winkfield: I think you’re beginning to pry a little too much! Actually, I haven’t licked any others, but I do recall with a shudder seeing somebody copulating with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the Wakefield Art Gallery in 1958—I saw it reflected in a piece of glass over a painting in the next room. He was just a schoolboy and there were all these holes, so what else was he supposed to do with them?
Rail: There are several instances where you write about food, about the way you can see the painter’s desire manifest in the image of the painting—de Chirico painting candy and really wanting to eat it. How did you become aware of this aspect of imagery?
Winkfield: I identified with de Chirico’s urge to unwrap the candies and eat them because I grew up during the first age of austerity in England and everything was rationed, including the candies that I craved—we were rationed to half a bar of chocolate every two weeks—so it swelled in importance, that bar of chocolate. Anytime I saw a painting of someone eating I almost began salivating myself. And my mother worked for a confectioner’s, which was a huge influence on me—paging Dr. Freud—the sugar-coated pastries, their pinks and greens and creams, affected my color sense in later years.
Rail: You’ve written a lot about still lifes. Do you conceive of your paintings as still lifes?
Winkfield: I think they’re interchangeably still lifes or landscapes. They’re rarely portraits, but they can be portraits of landscapes.
Rail: One of the things about your last show at Tibor de Nagy (2012) was that the paintings seemed to evoke architectural space.
Winkfield: One of my great passions is architecture. I spent 10 years going around to every Anglo-Saxon church in England and doing drawings of their interiors—in fact some of my paintings are based on floor plans of Anglo-Saxon churches. They’re all different—you think of a church as a simple cruciform shape, but medieval churches often have chapter houses attached to one side, and choirs and cloisters, so they’re actually quite abstract and varied in layout.
You must remember that these churches were painted both inside and out—murals or strips of color, so that influenced me a great deal. The Victorians scrubbed them clean, but I’m very conscious of these places being like jewels inside but rather plain outside. I’ve tried, in my paintings, to recreate what they might have felt like inside. And a lot of my paintings do have religious overtones, although they are completely secular in subject matter.
Rail: Does that also have to do with emblematic or heraldic imagery?
Winkfield: No, I just like simplified shapes—there’s no hidden symbolism in my work, I assure you. Why has a man got a fish on his head? Because I think it looks appropriate; it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s thinking about fish. I culled certain techniques from Raymond Roussel’s theories 40 years ago, but now it’s all internalized—it just comes naturally. If you had to ask me to backtrack as to how I chose a certain image, I really couldn’t tell you.
It took me 10 years to figure out how to paint what was in my head. I left college in 1967 and I floundered because, although I knew what I wanted to paint, I didn’t know how to visualize it on canvas. I began to write stories about the scenes I wanted to represent, but I still couldn’t figure out how to paint them. Then I saw a Richard Tuttle show, the two-part retrospective at the Whitney, and some months later I made a couple of small Richard Tuttles. A week after that they became slightly more complicated, and shortly thereafer they’d turned into little narratives. So it was Richard Tuttle’s minimalism which was responsible for me becoming a narrative painter again.
Rail: Well, the reviews of that exhibition were notoriously negative; when you started writing criticism did the disparity of your experience of this show and the way it was written about color your later work as an art writer? What do you feel you bring to writing about art?
Winkfield: It’s like my paintings: I began painting the way I do because, at the time, I hadn’t seen anybody else paint quite the way I wanted to paint. In terms of writing, which is not criticism (though I think art criticism is helpful because it brings the news to you immediately), I just wanted to sit down and really think about what I was looking at. An old friend of mine, Darragh Park, went to Yale in the late ’50s; one of his professors was the famous art historian George Heard Hamilton. Hamilton would have his students go to the Yale University Art Gallery and select a painting, stand in front of it for an hour, and write down exactly what they thought about it, with no historical context whatsoever. What are you looking at, how does it appeal to you? And that’s what I wanted to do. I brought in some art-historical references, but I really wanted to delve into what the painting was about, and what it was trying to tell me.
Rail: I’ve just been thinking about the ecclesiastical vestments Matisse made to fit into certain chapels, especially the one at Vence. In terms of the installation of your paintings, are you concerned about the spaces they end up in, or are they constructed to be all-terrain vehicles?
Winkfield: Various people who bought my paintings have sent me installation photographs and they appear above sideboards, or a fireplace, or in a hallway. You can look at them obliquely. I don’t mind where they end up as long as they’re kept clean, since they have immaculate surfaces. But going back to Matisse, one of the great disappointments of my life was visiting his chapel—it looked like a lavatory to me, all that white tile. There are certain artworks that get labeled “great” and then generation after generation falls into that gushing trap, until someone comes along and points out, “This looks like a public lavatory.” Then the conversation can hopefully be opened up again.
Rail: There’s something about your interests that has to do with the arcane, with discovering obscure things on your own. Do you think perversity is an essential part of an artistic temperament? At one point you say to Miles Champion, “I thought we all became artists in order not to conform.”
Winkfield: When I came here in 1969, New York was a much more open society—so many varieties of people here, which was partly financial because it was so cheap to live. Painters would mix with poets who’d mix with playwrights, jewelry designers would mix with composers, filmmakers and dancers would make films together. Everyone was doing their own thing and had strange tastes. It was wildly exciting, like Paris in 1910. I remember meeting a businessman in 1979. I thought I’d be bored stiff when I had to visit his house, but he had this superb collection of vintage clocks and watches, going back to the 18th century. Ten years later most businessmen were playing golf and that was about it. And today they just go out to expensive meals. Now New York seems so much more homogenized and boring than it used to be, so when you talk about perversity of taste, that was the norm back then. Speaking of perversity, I’m planning a trip to Yorkshire this summer to see four Norman baptismal fonts, with the added bonus of walking through the English countryside for miles and miles until, tired but happy, I reach the tiny churches which house them.
Rail: One thing that comes up in an indirect way is that your work and personality seem so distinctly English, the product of growing up in England when you did, but they’re equally about being a New Yorker, and blending those two aspects.
Winkfield: One of the people I most admire is Harry Mathews, the poet and novelist. He has always divided his time between France and America, and combined the best of both worlds, both in his life and in his writings. I think, subconsciously, my early life was modeled on his.
Rail: How did you first meet him?
Winkfield: I’d read a poem by him and then a couple of his early novels. This was in London in 1965, and I decided when I left college in 1967 to go and live in France. I wrote to Harry and asked if he knew of a place to stay in Paris and he invited me to stay at his apartment, being kind enough to move out to his then girlfriend’s so I could have the place to myself. I was just bowled over by that act of generosity, which was totally alien to England—despite its good points, England was a tight-fisted place, not very generous. Harry, of course, loved Roussel as well and I’d already found out that John Ashbery did too—it was like-spirits coming together. I’m still English, and that could be used against me, and “personal” painters like me. Which takes us back to the whole idea of “homogenization” in the international art world: these days art has to be acceptable in New York and Beijing and Montreal and Australia, which has produced a generic style that’s totally alien to my way of thinking. I’m fascinated by people like Myron Stout and Albert Pinkham Ryder, profoundly American artists. I don’t think Ryder ever had a show in Europe. Likewise, Graham Sutherland and Samuel Palmer are typical English artists who don’t read beyond their country of origin, and that’s perfectly fine by me. When artists are promoted as being of “international stature” I automatically ask, “But are they any good?”
Rail: What are the ways in which paintings can relate to a body, or one’s body? Because your descriptions of so many paintings are bodily. For instance, you’ve written about Chardin, “Walls have ears too, and are listening to what the still life is doing—or so his finest still lifes tell us. In these aural masterpieces the walls appear composed of solidified fog.” And, later,
Throughout his career he exhibited an aversion to open air … this painter, skilled at animals and fruit, brings his brush to play as an olfactory organ. It’s as much the reek as the sight of the disemboweled fish that curdles the stomachs of museum visitors.
Winkfield: This all ties in with close viewing—really peering into a painting. I think in my Vermeer essay I talk about a demented viewer who pried a Vermeer painting off the wall at Kenwood House in London and cried, “Speak, speak!” If you become totally absorbed in a painting it does come out to meet you. I think, in great paintings, all the senses come together.
Rail: You mentioned something else about Chardin, that he was “blessed insofar as he appears to have liked both himself and other people,” which is “not the sort of achievement a painter can hide in his work; it shows instantly—every other brushstroke betrays it.”
Winkfield: Well, I don’t think Francis Bacon liked himself very much, and that’s evident in his work. On the other hand, I love all of Le Corbusier, but as a human being he was not a particularly nice fellow. I feel the real Trevor Winkfield is in my paintings, and the real Le Corbusier is in his buildings. Artists have this unparalleled gift to project their personalities onto something else.
Rail: One of my favorite people ever is Auden—who was very against “biography”—and he says something very similar: that you learn about an artist’s life through their work and that it’s gross to go trolling through their personal life for clues.
Winkfield: Well, the English are very private and Americans are very public. I was amazed to come here and find out everything about a person within a few days, and then never see them again after three months. In England you’d have this little accretion of personal information divulged over a period of years, but then you’d be friends with that person for the rest of your life.
Rail: Is that how your paintings reveal themselves?
Winkfield: I think my paintings reveal themselves very, very slowly. A critic once made the mistake of describing them as “private”; they’re not private but they are personal. If you’re interested in my “person” then you will try to understand them—there are no closed doors in my paintings, but don’t look for a welcome mat.
Rail: I’m endlessly interested in the relationship between someone’s life and their work and how we’re supposed to connect or disconnect them.
Winkfield: As in, “Who is Jasper Johns?” I’ve met him several times but I have no idea who he is. He’s a very private person, most unusual in America. Exemplary behavior.
Rail: In your essay “The Artist’s Artist” you quote him: “I don’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings.” But the work seems to be trying to express a very personal thing in a very oblique way.
Winkfield: He’s like a burglar, he leaves clues, but you can never catch him.
Rail: I’m reading the book Jill Johnston wrote about Johns’s personal life and he refused to allow image permissions—a very painful thing, and I believe the end of their friendship. I think when you see his paintings through a certain history of gay identity they are very meaningful; your paintings are also situated within that trajectory. In your work I find the gayness in the kind of sensuousness that is also withholding, the encrypted desire.
Winkfield: I might agree with that, though I suspect it’s more to do with English reticence.
Rail: A lot of your writing concerning fruits, textures, and experiences is very sensuous. Can you recall when you first became aware of the relationship between an erotic experience and images?
Winkfield: When I saw Cézanne’s nudes in the National Gallery—the “Large Bathers”—that’s when I first noticed a painted bottom. I’d looked at lots of Rubens’s buxom wenches and remained unmoved, but Cézanne’s woman had this wonderful slablike bottom. I can’t say it caused me any sexual frisson, but it disturbed me nonetheless. It was very blatant. He’s a great painter of nudes, Cézanne, no doubt about it. A painterly peeping Tom.
Rail: That’s fascinating. I never looked at them as though they were erotically painted.
Winkfield: But if you really spend time with them, delve into them, you can see he was totally sexually frustrated, even if you didn’t know about his early paintings of rapes, orgies, and abductions. For a lot of his nudes he used his own drawings of antique sculptures, or studies from Old Masters, as prototypes. But then he had an old lady pose because he daren’t ask a young woman for fear of the neighbors gossiping. A Cézanne painting of a nude woman standing by herself came up for auction about 10 years ago and it didn’t sell, I think because people felt so awkward with it. Deep psychological pain emanates from the painting—you suspect it was painted by a dirty old man. But you only tumble to that fact after spending time with it. It’s not obvious pornography.
Rail: How would you situate your painting relative to Pop Art?
Winkfield: Well I was obviously influenced as a student. We’re all prisoners of our own generation—I don’t mean that in a bad way—we select what we like early on and it always stays with us. Of course, I never considered myself a Pop painter. It was Pop’s color that appealed to me. When I was growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s, color meant grays and browns and misty hues. If you take all the various technicolors of Play-Doh and roll them together, what comes out is a grayish-brown sludge, which was the color typical of the English palette at that time.
Rail: Of course, contemporary with this, you had a remarkable period of English film containing the most beautiful colors in the world.
Winkfield: Yes, color film influenced me much more than color paintings. I love celluloid color, light that shines through color. For instance, York Minster has some of the greatest stained glass windows and I often went there as a child, to have the color enfold me. Not only the color, but also the subject matter: Cain and Abel, the birth of Christ, the Damnation. It was color and narrative at the same time. So one of the reasons I don’t care for Mark Rothko is that there’s no narrative for me to hang onto. One of the most disgusting sights I ever saw was in the Tate Gallery, sometime in the mid ’60s: there was this soppy girl, the usual teenage art student, sitting cross-legged in front of a Mark Rothko, looking up and trying to induce some kind of spiritual experience in front of it. I almost slapped her.
Rail: There was a moment in your early life when you were shaken by Kenward Elmslie saying, “Time is no longer on your side.”
Winkfield: That was during my hiatus period. I’d finished at the Royal College of Art and basically stopped painting. I’d done other things, edited Juillard magazine and the Lewis Carroll Circular, and I would produce one painting a year for a friend’s birthday. I was 31 and I realized it was time to move on. Your whole life can be changed by someone saying “Don’t wear blue” or “It’s time you did something with your life.” I remember it very distinctly. At that point it dawned on me that, within six months of graduation, a good three-quarters of the students I’d gone to college with had given up being artists and had taken up teaching. And they never really amounted to much. That was already apparent to me, and I didn’t want to go down that particular academic dead end.
Rail: Would you describe your paintings as abstract?
Winkfield: Abstract–figurative. I had a show many years ago and I asked Rudy Burckhardt, “What’s your favorite painting in the show?” He replied, “The one with the crescent shape with a bit of blue down the side and drops dripping from it, and a yellow patch at the bottom.” He described it in purely formal terms even though it was a wild tableau. A lot of people do consider me abstract. I don’t myself, because I can see all the figuration. It’s like Harry Mathews, his American and French sides; I try to be the same in my paintings, abstract and figurative at the same time.
Rail: Do you think your paintings create narratives?
Winkfield: They’re certainly stories of a kind—but where is the beginning, the middle, and the end? I don’t know. Certain people don’t care for my paintings because they require too much thinking. You don’t really have to think too much about abstract painting before you get it, though a lot of really great cerebral painting has emerged from that abstract simplicity. What I like about a complicated painting is getting to live with it—by which I mean visiting it over many years and discovering things I overlooked during my first 10 visits.
Rail: What are the major paintings in New York City that you have lived with?
Winkfield: I would say Seurat’s “La Parade,” all the Vermeers, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Picasso, “Broadway Boogie Woogie” by Mondrian, and Cézanne’s “The Bather.” I really like to look at paintings one at a time, and then leave. In a week’s time I’m going down to Philadelphia to look at a loaned Vermeer. I’m going for two hours just to see it, have a cup of coffee then come back. I often go to look at one thing very intensely. Ten years ago a Cézanne “Pierrot and Harlequin” was loaned to the High Museum in Atlanta from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, so I took the morning flight to Atlanta. Because I’d made such an investment of time and money, I looked intensely at the painting for over two hours—that’s the kind of looking I’m talking about—while making notes: “What is the painting trying to tell me?” It was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had. Then I got back on a plane that same afternoon and flew back to New York—crazy!
Rail: That’s the kind of forensic question that a notebook is good for, but in the way that you apprehend the painting, what are the things that show themselves to you after looking for two hours that were not immediately clear?
Winkfield: Obviously, little things: the way a triangular shape finds an echo on the other side of the canvas. Or just how a mouth is painted—very delicately or with a flick of the brush. I also take photographs close-up, haphazardly, from all over the painting. Then when I get home I look at them in random order, so if I go back to the painting I can detect new things. You can discover details this way that you would usually overlook, because the eye tends to fix on certain things in a painting. It has its own psychology. I remember years ago going to a de Kooning show with someone who became a very famous art critic. I was still examining the first two or three paintings, maybe 12 or 15 minutes of looking intensely, in which time my friend had whisked through the entire show and came back to announce, “We’re leaving.” When I read his review the next week it was so superficial—there was no peering whatsoever. Once, I was with Bill Berkson in the Louvre looking at the Vermeer “Lacemaker,” and tourists were all around us, and, while still moving, snapping photos of the famous pictures as they passed. Very few young people now know how to look at paintings—it’s beginning to be a lost art. It’s as if, if something doesn’t move and jiggle around, it’s not of interest to a lot of people.
Rail: Do you believe it’s lonely being a painter?
Winkfield: For myself, no, but as another friend said, “In New York, if the loneliness doesn’t kill you, the socializing will.” That’s something that has really overwhelmed the art world since I moved here 45 years ago: painting as social activity. You have to be a socialite, a good talker, a snappy dresser, go to endless openings and events, be able to mix with the wealthy and, above all, be savvy at business. Heaven forbid you have van Gogh’s bad breath or Cézanne’s body odor—you’ll never get through the front door. We’ve ended up where Modernism began, in a conformist, bourgeois society. This isn’t New York 2014; this is Paris 1865.
Rail: Do you at all feel there’s a moral or ethical dimension to painting?
Winkfield: Oh yes, because I can tell when someone is faking it. I’m sure you can, too. Painting is a moral activity, not just another consumer product. A lot of art I now see in galleries is just churned out for the market, and that can make you feel awfully jaded and disgusted. Then you come across something by a serious and very moral artist, someone like Robert Grosvenor, and you realize that art can still be something worth feeling holier-than-thou about.
Rail: Finally, is the world in which your paintings exist—their internal world—one of chaos or order?
Winkfield: Well, I try to make order out of chaos. Our world is so incredibly chaotic, as I’m sure you’ll agree, especially the street life here in New York. I for one can’t believe how many directions people are traveling in, and at such high speed. But out of that confusion I can return home and create order, since, as you might surmise from looking at my paintings, I have a visceral dislike of spontaneity.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.