ROSEMARIE CASTORO with Alex Bacon
Approximately a year before Rosemarie Castoro’s untimely death from complications of cancer, Alex Bacon visited her in her Soho loft and studio, where she had lived and worked since 1965. They spoke about a wide variety of issues relating to her early work from the 1960s, which ranged from dance to minimal painting to performance art. This work is still too little known, even though it had a quiet, yet profound impact on the New York art world of the time, in which Castoro played an integral part.
Alex Bacon (Rail): What was your education?
Rosemarie Castoro: I studied graphic arts because, when I wanted to go to art school, I had to pay for it myself, so I went to school at night and worked during the day. And since I was an artist, I learned how to do paste ups and worked for an insurance company doing those and mechanicals, which was fun because it was just making lines and putting type in.
Rail: What is a paste up?
Castoro: A paste up is something you do with Photoshop now. It’s a mock-up for the printer to photograph the page the way it is and there would be indications for photographs and those photographs would be sized accordingly and you would be cutting up little pieces of type sometimes. Instead of sending it back to the typographer to correct something, they would have you split little words apart and other words.
Rail: To make it flow in a certain way?
Castoro: Or to change the spelling. So, I did all that and it was a lot better payment than trying to design something. I didn’t want to design anything, I didn’t want to get my head into whatever insurance thing they wanted to do. I said, “No, that’s not for me. I just do the paste ups.” So, with that, I learned more, I was more proficient in triangles and T-squares and I’ve used them in my work. I think that whatever you do to make money, or do besides your profession, can work itself into your profession. So nothing’s wasted. I did that and after Pratt, I wanted to paint, so I was dancing.
Rail: So you were dancing?
Castoro: Yes. I was dancing at Pratt. They got me as president of the dance workshop and the theater workshop in one year. I said, “Come on, I have to also do paste ups.” I was living with Carl Andre at the time. So, I was really busy. They said, “Oh, you can do it.” So, they got me to do it all.
Rail: And what kind of dance was it? Because, obviously, it was a fertile time for dance, with Judson and all that.
Castoro: No, no I wasn’t involved with the real stuff. [Laughs.] I was doing my own stuff. Here is an image of a piece I choreographed with this guy who was also a dancer. We used these rectangular sheets of jersey and did that. The first work I choreographed was a five-person group piece. It had a raised platform that I had built. So, we became like sculptures on the platform and then we got off the platform and did things and got back on the platform. That was something Carl saw and he thought it was so terrific.
Rail: I’ve heard that you collaborated with Yvonne Rainer.
Castoro: Oh, God. I don’t call it collaboration. She asked me to be part of the pedestrian traffic in her pieces. So in that sense, yeah, I did. You contributed something because your body was there and you could move. It was no collaboration. I just performed in a couple of her pieces.
Rail: Were you also studying painting as part of your curriculum at Pratt?
Castoro: Yes, I was painting as part of my curriculum at Pratt, though I was studying mostly graphic arts, actually—printing. I was also choreographing and then, after Pratt, everybody disappeared. There were no more dancers that I could use and I didn’t want to wait and develop a dance company. I wanted to make art every single day. So, I decided, “What do I want to do, be somebody else’s horse?” If I couldn’t choreograph I would find something to do every day, you know, so I could make art. So, that’s what I did with painting from that point.
Rail: When you were at Pratt you were also actively seeking out an artistic community. Not only of the dancers that you were working with at Pratt, but also visual artists.
Castoro: I started to get to know them because I would go to bars. I would go to meet other artists: that was the goal. We had a kind of community, in a way, because we would recognize each other, since we went to the same bars.
Rail: And what artists, would you say, made up your community? Who were your closest friends?
Castoro: There was Larry Zox, Neil Williams—then there were the women, as well, like Lee Lozano. I would go after I finished my paste ups. I would go to drag Carl home, mostly. Because if I didn’t go drag him home, he would come home at 5, or 6, or 7 o’clock in the morning.
Rail: Why did you think to have a painting practice? If you couldn’t be a choreographer, why painting? That seems interesting.
Castoro: Because I can make it every day. I can work every single day and on my own time. And in fact my work came out of painting, even the choreographic work. I showed my first works in 1966 at Tibor de Nagy. I also showed paintings around then at the Stable Gallery. Then, nothing happened for me, but I just kept on working, painting. Also, I started making photography and photographing my work. I was also a photographer. I also started, in 1969, to write a journal. I traded with this big catalogue house and got Polaroid film and Polaroid cameras and tripods and a dishwasher. I had a washing machine and dryer. I got a lot of equipment that I didn’t have to spend money on.
Rail: Where did these forms come from in the paintings?
Castoro: Y’s. They’re from Y’s. It’s from looking at the Y and structuring the Y and seeing how those edges—then I started making things happen with the edges. They start slicing through each other, interfering with each other, which is my series called “Interference.” These are some parts of the Y’s, big Y’s, that would overlap and interfere and then I didn’t paint at all. I made it into a flat object by eliminating some of the places where they overlapped. So, it’s just a matter of keeping my mind occupied with structure.
Rail: Where did you come up with this form, because you repeat it? It’s not just any old Y, right?
Castoro: If you notice, these are earlier.
Rail: That predates the Y?
Rail: So, the Y paintings are ’65?
Rail: So that painting is like, ’63 or ’64?
Castoro: ’64. You notice some of the strokes. They’re T’s and they’re L’s in there. The Y became an element that I could play with. That’s how I came to the Y.
Rail: And you liked the way it broke up space, perhaps?
Castoro: I did, but I also liked the question, “Why painting?”
Rail: Were you asking yourself that question even in the early-to-mid ’60s?
Rail: At the time, what was your answer? Because you did keep painting. Essentially, you answered: “Yes.”
Castoro: You know, it’s going to tell me something, and it did.
Rail: What did it tell you?
Castoro: It told me to look at the edges, of how the edges intersected space, and so I was able to then, take that Y form and deal with the tips of the Y, with the edges of the Y. I also came out of the graphic arts, which means that I dealt with calligraphy, I dealt with typesetting, I dealt with letters, I dealt with linocuts, and I dealt with the hard edge of something, so it became a—I hate to use the word “motif”—but it was very comfortable for me to deal with this graphic presentation and make something out of it.
Rail: Well, it’s interesting because those early paintings—they’re very optical.
Castoro: Yes, yes.
Rail: Did you like that aspect of them, that they’re kind of popping in the eye?
Castoro: Well, I guess I needed it. My brain is active and so I used these colors because they popped.
Rail: Because you wanted the paintings to be active and do something to the viewer?
Castoro: Yeah, because color was also part of the process. Frank Stella saw these paintings with his wife at the time, the critic Barbara Rose, and Frank said, “You’re one of the better colorists, you’re like 98-point-something percent a colorist painter.” So, I said, “Oh, he doesn’t see my structure.” So I gave up color.
Rail: Wow, so what people were liking in the work, you were not necessarily interested in playing into?
Rail: Well, that’s interesting because when would that have been? In the mid-’60’s?
Castoro: That was ’66.
Rail: I do think it’s interesting, the way the eye reads these paintings, because it jumps around. The all over composition moves your eye along.
Castoro: Yeah, because also the hexagon is angled differently and so they make different trails, only because of the quality of the repeated pattern and the angles that I used. It also has a lot to do with dance, as well, with creating space, choreographing.
Rail: Well, it seems, in a way, they choreograph your eye, right, because when you look you feel as if your eye is being directed by the painting, right?
Castoro: Yes, by the edges, where it’s changing, so it makes for a linear experience.
Rail: But it seems that then, these “Interference” works are more about structure, as you’re saying.
Castoro: Yes. Structure started to come in and then I was able to play with it, with overlapping and interfering, because people were interfering also, with my brain. [Laughs.]
Rail: A lot of potential sources of interference, right?
Castoro: Yes. [Laughs.] Other people, so much interference. I had to experience that, make it my own.
Rail: So, the paintings progress, but it seems that, increasingly, you were working on paper.
Castoro: Yes, I jumped to try to work out my structures with paper, because it’s faster than making the canvases, although sometimes, looking at the work on paper, I would then say, “Oh, I want to see this large.” So that worked, using the paper to advance the idea, and then go further with a large canvas to get an experience of the idea, because with paper, you don’t have so much the experience of the idea than you have the idea in a convenient, handy size. But, to have it large, then you really can experience the idea, because you’re immersed.
Rail: So, is that why you prefer to work, or at the time you preferred to work, in a large scale?
Castoro: I want to be immersed in the idea, take responsibility for it.
Rail: It seems that, primarily, you were not exhibiting so many of these paintings.
Castoro: Not at all, I wasn’t exhibiting them at all.
Rail: Why were you not exhibiting them?
Castoro: Because when Jill Kornblee saw the “Y” paintings, she said, “Oh, I can show the ‘Y’ paintings next year,” which was only five months away.
Rail: What year would that have been?
Castoro: ’64, ’65, and I said, “No.” I wanted to show whatever I was working on at the time because my mind was really quickly advancing the evolution of the structure of my paintings. So she said, “Oh, come on.” I don’t blame her, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking that it was important for me to continue working. I didn’t want to be stopped at any point. It’s nice that somebody liked my work, but it was not going to be what the schedule of the show was. It was not going to happen that way.
Rail: It was more important to you to be able to keep the ideas moving—
Castoro: Keep it moving. Keep the emotion.
Rail: —than to have a public audience for your work.
Castoro: Which might be doing something, because that’s another type of interference. Maybe that was an interference I was thinking about. Things happen and it stops you from working. How much schizophrenia can you deal with? [Laughs.]
Rail: So, primarily the audience for these paintings, at the time was—
Rail: —your circle of friends, people who would come over to the studio.
Castoro: —to visit, to hang out, drink wine, the local artisans.
Rail: So, in a way, maybe, nonetheless, you had a constant litmus test, so it wasn’t as if you were just laboring away alone. There was still a sense of people responding—
Castoro: There were people walking through.
Rail: —and saying things about the work, like what you just said about what Frank Stella said. Those comments could then lead to—
Castoro: That was about the only comment that I really had, was Frank Stella mentioning it, because I respected him, he was a showing artist. But then, I didn’t believe anybody anyway, so—
Rail: You took it all with a grain of salt.
Rail: It seems that you did stop painting at a certain point, right? First of all, you did show in this two-gallery exhibition, the show—
Castoro: Right, ’66, yeah.
Rail: That was at the Stable Gallery and Tibor de Nagy. It was organized by—
Castoro: E. C. Goossen.
Rail: Right. How did that come about?
Castoro: Because he came to my studio.
Rail: So he was also part of that circle too? Working with artists that were part of your friend group, in shows and stuff like that?
Castoro: Yeah, people walked in and out of things and so I got a show with Tibor. Nothing happened with Tibor until I decided to look for a space, because I was crowding myself out of my studio. It was getting so crowded, I needed to have a space to show the paintings, free-standing walls, so that I would clear them out.
Rail: You had met him in ’66 for the show and he was interested at that point, in showing your work?
Castoro: No, just interested in the show that I presented, which was the paintings.
Rail: What did you show in that exhibition?
Castoro: That was the pencil on stained canvas. It was the linear plaid, so to speak. They crossed each other, the lines of the Y, the angles of the Y, went all the way to the edge of the canvas and then they came in from the other side, the other edge of the canvas and they produced this plaid. That’s what I was showing in ’66. Then I started to eliminate all except one angle. It would just be one angle and I had to back up the canvas, because I was using pencil. I was doing pencil on canvas, which I had to back up with cardboard, and then move the cardboard around.
Then Lucy Lippard was starting to do street works and Lucy did a show at Paula Cooper, which was called Number 7, and invited me. That was pretty much a part of the Art Workers’ Coalition time, people were really grouping together and I was having fun. I did street works and I just used my childhood desires of making an atoll in the middle of Manhattan Island, so that whatever was underneath the concrete would blow up and then it was filled with water and I would have an atoll in the middle of Manhattan.
I didn’t have a wall here in the studio at the time. I was confusing myself, in terms of what is living and what is working, so I made a tape line around the periphery and I said, “Ok, I’ll live here and the other side, this is my studio,” and that’s how the atoll came about because I used aluminum tape to make a line so that the line was very strong. The line is very powerful. That you can use a line to designate an area, that’s a very powerful statement. I decided to take it outside, and I hired a friend of mine to follow me with a really good camera.
Rail: So you were walking around and you were…
Castoro: I was taping the ground. Artists use a lot of tape, right?
Rail: So was this tape actually fixed to the ground or was it just laid down onto it?
Castoro: It was fixed to the ground, as long as people didn’t pick it up. I didn’t care about that as long as I had it down long enough for my friend to photograph it.
Rail: So that people would be walking on the street and have this question about why is the tape here, what does this or that side of the line mean?
Castoro: Oh, I didn’t care about what people thought. [Laughs.] I knew what I had to do, which was to make an atoll out of Manhattan Island. I also used it to crack a corner of Paula Cooper’s gallery. So the inside of the crack, which was inside the gallery, would correspond to the outside corner of the building, as if somebody just [makes biting sound], took a big bite out of it. Then I went to Seattle and I did a cracking in a museum there.
Rail: As part of Lucy Lippard’s numbers show?
Castoro: Yes, and I actually tried to find a geologist and talked to him. Well he thought I was crazy because I was encouraging this fault line to come to Seattle to break off the whole West Coast edge. I did this as a thought work and not that I was going to want to do these things physically. I mean hell, you know, you don’t break off the edge of the West Coast! I did it for myself.
Rail: That’s a kind of thread through your work in general because obviously it’s more important for you to be working through ideas for yourself than necessarily—
Castoro: —Presenting it to people. Yeah, I couldn’t care less. I mean when somebody gets it, they get it. If they don’t get it, what can I do? Later they’ll get it or maybe later I can round up my words enough so it becomes something that people can get in a different form.
ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.