FRANK OWEN with Alexi Worth
Frank Owen has the most interesting studio I know. When I first visited, back in the late 1980s, the place was a cross between a visionary architect’s office and an automotive design shop. On the walls, hundreds of cardboard templates in zigguratish shapes hung from pegs. Visitors had to navigate around big tables of clay. And everywhere was a dazzling plethora of handmade tools—tools for scribing and carving, tools for applying paint in unusual ways. Back then, Owen’s paintings were better known (he has exhibited in New York since the 1970s, at one time with Leo Castelli, more recently with Nancy Hoffman). But today, many younger painters aren’t familiar with his work. It probably doesn’t help that he has lived for decades in the tiny hamlet of Keene Valley, in upstate New York. When I visited him there this summer, the cardboard templates were gone, but the place was recognizably packed with ideas I wanted to steal. Owen now works with what he calls “skins,” translucent films of improvised patterns from which he assembles paintings in layers. Did I mention that he builds them backwards? Our conversation itself went both backwards and forwards, ranging erratically across the geography of Owen’s life, work, and friendships. So what follows is both a social history of some key periods—UC Davis in the ’60s, Soho in the ’70s—and also a biographical sketch. Owen was never a Funk artist, but he has what might strike Easterners as the best kind of Californian temperament: relaxed, generous, adamantly inclusive, hungry for new experience. His upcoming show, titled Next, runs from October 29 – December 12 at Nancy Hoffman Gallery.
Alexi Worth (Rail): You were born in Kalispell, Montana, and grew up in California. But you started college at Antioch, in Ohio. Is that where you got on the art track?
Frank Owen: Yes. Antioch was an interesting place, especially for a kid from a California farm town. I lasted two years and then ran out of money. While I was there, all the Beat poets passed through. I saw Gregory Corso waking up on a couch in the women’s dorm. Merce Cunningham and John Cage performed, just the two of them. I had an art teacher who was just dazzling: David Porter Hatch. He opened the door. While I was at Antioch there was a show of the Bay Area Figurative School. Seeing that, I realized there was really something going on in California. So by the time I got back there, I was painting like Bischoff and Diebenkorn—a very attractive style to someone who was just starting out. And it happened that in Sacramento, a freeway extension was being built through one of the older neighborhoods. They condemned all these Victorian houses, and we could rent them and use them for studios.
Rail: A real estate fantasy!
Owen: Your house was going to be torn down in six months, so you could really make a mess. And then move to the next house. All these young painters, potters and sculptors, we’d get together, drink beer, talk and talk. It was a great time. I left to do military service—Coast Guard Reserve—and came back. It took me nine years to get a bachelor’s degree! But what a great decade. Starting in ’57 and getting your BA in ’66—nice decade for hanging out.
Rail: You were at Sacramento State and then UC Davis, the birthplace of Funk art. Was Funk already big?
Owen: Funk was already a core sensibility, but “Funk Art” was just beginning. I’m the third or fourth person to see Bob Arneson’s first funk pot. You know, the clay soda bottle that says “No Deposit, No Return.” Arneson was in a booth at the 1961 California State Fair Art Show, demonstrating ceramics. We all went to lunch and he says, “Look at this!” And there was his first piece, still wet. It took him three years to figure out what it meant.
Rail: Was Arneson the most charismatic figure at Davis?
Owen: [William] Wiley might have been more charismatic. He was mysterious, oblique. But Arneson could pose really challenging questions, and he was ever-present. He would talk to anybody, anytime. And [Wayne] Thiebaud was important there. He taught everyone—chemistry majors, agriculture majors—to draw like Ingres. And he could! He loved teaching drawing. Did you know that after he retired in 1990, at the age of seventy, he continued to teach for another nineteen years—for nothing? Every term he would do an hour-long demonstration. He would set up the model, and then erase and shift and measure everything. I was his TA one year, and Bruce Nauman was the year before. Bruce and I talked about it just recently—about how much we learned, about the discipline of seeing, from Thiebaud.
Rail: When did you and Nauman become friends?
Owen: Early 1964. He had just enrolled in the graduate program. By then I had gone from stripe paintings to grids—didn’t we all paint grids! And then variable paintings. There would be six hexagons bolted together into different configurations. You could rotate every unit one sixth of a turn, and reconfigure them. Bruce saw one of my Hex paintings and introduced himself. He had come from a science background, and I was reading Scientific American as much as any of the art magazines. We both were.
Rail: What were Nauman’s paintings like?
Owen: The last painting I remember of Bruce’s was a gridded, heavily impastoed oil painting. He attached a metal lump on the side of it. Pretty soon he figured out the lump was more interesting than the painting. Then he began making things out of fiberglass—he thought of them as plastic landscapes. All of the later tropes were there. He went out to photograph Sacramento Valley oaks—these gigantic beautiful trees, with spreading branches—but he turned the camera upside down. He could have just flipped the print, right? But no, no, no. He had to turn the camera upside down. You’d ask him about it and you’d get this little, low chuckle.
Rail: You made some movies together.
Owen: He showed up one day at my place with a 16mm camera he had just bought. He was determined we should make a movie. What’s going to be the subject? Well, the Beatles’ A Hard Days Night had just come out, with all those jump cuts. And so we went out to the back yard of my place, and I just smoked. You see me sitting in the tall grass, smoking. Or I’m standing by the garage, smoking. That’s it. And so the title of the film was Smoke.
Rail: Was it clear that Davis was an exciting place? Or did you feel far away from the center of things, meaning New York?
Owen: The California folks were always a little skeptical about New York’s centrality—why not? But some visiting faculty were from the East. My favorite was Richard Artschwager. He came for a semester, his first teaching experience. My wife and I gave a party to invite some other Sacramento artists to meet Richard, and we all went to a very inexpensive Italian restaurant. The tab for everybody was like thirty-five dollars, and he picked it up. Boy, were we impressed. There’s a New York artist—classy! In the studio, though, Artschwager was so cryptic. He’d say something about your work and it’d take you weeks to think it out: “What did he mean by that?” When he came to my studio, he finished by saying, “Well, you’ve gotta go to New York.” And the other faculty were telling me the same thing. I wasn’t funky enough, I guess. I was thinking along different lines.
Rail: So you moved east.
Owen: Not right away, but I did. My wife and I filled up the VW and drove across the country with the Slant Step in the back seat of the car.
Rail: The Slant Step is a whole saga in itself—a mysterious, semi-mythical Funk art object that linked a lot of California artists—you and Wiley and Nauman and Richard Serra, among others. But let’s go back to the chronology. What was the New York art world like in 1968, when you got there?
Owen: ’68 was a wonderful time to arrive. Soho didn’t exist yet. We got a loft on lower Broadway. I remember being accused of paying too much; people said, “200 dollars a month? Man, I’m only paying 125.” For the first year, I didn’t make any art. I was doing scut work, laying floors, hanging sheet rock. There was only one bar and that was Fanelli’s. Only one bodega, on West Broadway and Prince. The community was artists, for the most part. We played basketball together on Sunday mornings, at a court on 6th Avenue and Canal. It was a pickup game, a group of people including Joe Zucker, Sandy Wurmfeld, Porfirio DiDonna, Herb Schiffrin, and others. Alex Katz came a couple of times, he had a wonderful—
Rail: Katz played basketball?
Owen: Yeah. Being somewhat older he had a wonderful outside the key two-hand chest-level set shot. He could really sink it. Yeah, he was very wily. It was a fun group. I wasn’t very good, but I could shut you down.
Rail: Who was good?
Owen: Peter Schjeldahl was good, he was a light forward with a lot of speed and agility and very determined, oh boy. He was a poet then, and already a great critical intelligence. This story is probably not for publication, but one time, Peter took me aside and showed me some paintings, on shirt cardboards. I said, “Keep your day job.” [Lowers voice.]
Rail: What happened once you were able to make artwork again?
Owen: The kind of things I had been doing in California didn’t feel as satisfying any more. One day I was in the loft, messing around. I popped some color on top of some liquid acrylic, and I poured it out. It was like mixing up a batch of brownies: a marbleized swirl. Very simple, but I thought to myself, I could do that on a huge scale, and it’ll be a whole different animal. That was the advent of the pourable paintings. I made five or six. And then I did what everybody did in those days. You went to see Ivan—Ivan Karp, bless his memory. He would look at anybody. He would hold your five slides up to the light and grunt a little bit, and then either he made an appointment to come see your studio, or not. He was the node for all the young artists in the neighborhood.
Rail: And he offered to visit?
Owen: I had heard that he never stayed longer than fifteen minutes. When he arrived, I turned the kitchen timer on: he was there thirteen minutes. He said “I know a guy named Bill Agee, he’s putting together a show at SVA. I’ll tell him about you.” Agee put me in a group show in 1970 with Ed Ruda and Thornton Willis. That was a break.
Rail: You ended up showing with Leo Castelli, whose gallery was the center of everything. How did that happen?
Owen: Leo visited Bruce (Nauman) and his wife in Pasadena, and he saw one of my paintings in their living room, and asked them about it. When he got back to New York, he called me up. When he said his name, with that accent, I thought it was somebody pranking me. He offered me a stipend right away, and I had my first show in June of ’72, in the old uptown gallery. It was exciting to show in that famous front room. The ’60s happened in that room.
Rail: You did another show with Castelli, and then parted ways. What happened?
Owen: I didn’t really fit into any niche there. For a while, Leo was interested in what was then called Lyrical Abstraction. He showed a few painters who were loosely associated with that tendency, including myself, Peter Young, and David Diao.
Rail: Lyrical Abstraction was a kind of catchall term, wasn’t it? A label for many kinds of painterly expressivity. The term “Post-Minimalism” was coined around the same time, but it got better street cred. Lyrical Abstraction is sometimes described as the last art movement to be killed off.
Owen: I had mixed feelings about the term. But there was a lot of dramatic, roisterous painting being made in those years. You saw High Times, Hard Times, right? The survey that David Reed and Katy Siegel put together? They did a nice job in many ways, but there was a big gap. The whole baroque wing of ’70s painting was missing: people like Terence La Noue, Philip Wofford, John Seery, Jim Sullivan.
Rail: Your own poured paintings were pretty roisterous—intricate, big, trippy almost to the point of looking like a kind of marbleized Op.
Owen: I disappointed one of my early art dealers, who thought I was a stoner. He thought, “Man, I’m going to show this guy’s work and we’re really going to get really high together.” But those paintings were too physically challenging. There might be 300 cups of pre-mixed color—you’re laying out maybe two months’ rent! And once you start, everything has to happen in a very limited time. It’s all wet-into-wet. So there’s no stopping. No going to bed. The longest took thirty-six hours to pour. I was hyperventilating most of the time.
Rail: In the poured paintings, you were picking up the mantle of Pollock, no?
Owen: I was thinking a lot about Echo: Number 25, 1951; that painting was talismanic for me. In his last years Pollock was struggling to reintroduce imagery, and it wasn’t easy for him. In my own work, I began to feel a similar pressure. I needed to find a gateway out of just being a paint stylist. One idea that was helpful was the notion of a “field.” An expanse where any number of elements can cohabit. The mere fact that they are assembled makes the painting. That was a kind of permission.
Rail: When you began to incorporate imagery again, how did you begin?
Owen: I started with the earliest tools: mashers and cutters, knives and knots. I would cast them in paint, and embed them right in the surface. I was using plastilene clay to make the molds. One day my friend Art Schade said, “Why don’t you just make the paintings on the clay?” It was one of those moments where you hit yourself in the forehead. So I built a big clay table, eight by ten feet. And I could engrave the surface in all kinds of ways.
Rail: That was the beginning of your painting in verso. You would mark up the clay, paint the clay surface, then peel the whole paint layer off, and adhere it to canvas.
Owen: Yes, once I had carved the surface, I would fill in the grooves, brayer over the crests. It was like working on a big linocut.
Rail: It was a new technique, a whole new beginning.
Owen: It was exciting. A way of working that nobody else was doing. I filled up notebooks with prospective directions. And it was all made possible because of the properties of acrylic paint! I like to think someday there will be Ph.D. candidates deliquescing about the Polymer Era. Like the shift from tempera to oil, back in the Renaissance. Thanks, Lenny Bocour!
Rail: When did you make the first of the new relief paintings?
Owen: In 1979. Nancy Hoffman saw them and offered me an exhibition—Leo was gentlemanly about letting me go, of course. So I showed some of the new work with her in 1981, and then I went down to Virginia to teach at VCU. I came back in the spring with six big paintings for a solo show. But when I parked the truck, Nancy came out to meet me and said, “Bad news”. I asked, “What, the announcement didn’t get printed?” “No,” she said, “your loft is on fire.” We walked the five blocks over to Broadway: water, smoke, firemen, everything was a mess. That night, twenty-five friends came over, helped carry all our furniture into a friend’s basement. I rolled up the paintings that weren’t too damaged. And then a few days later I rented another truck, drove our remaining possessions up to the Adirondacks.
Rail: Where you live now.
Owen: My wife is from this area, she has deep roots here. I figured we would spend the summer, and then move back. It never happened.
Rail: But your show at Nancy Hoffman went ahead; the new work had been safe in the truck. And the 1981 show included some remarkable paintings. One of them was eighteen feet wide. In the center there’s a kind of radiating motif, with long grooved lines shooting out in all directions.
Owen: Like a spray of particles coming out of an accelerator. I didn’t intend it as a metaphor, but that’s really how I was feeling. So many new ideas! My brain was a spark chamber. To me, that’s the pleasure of being an artist. Not satisfaction, not completion. It’s the excitement of seeing things open up.
Rail: People often describe the moment around 1980 that way, as a period of new energy. Did you feel part of a larger generational shift?
Owen: Well, the irony for me was that at the very cusp of it, I left. As the art area heated up through the ’80s, I was aware of what was going on, but I was five hours away.
Rail: You were up in the mountains. Over the years, some nature motifs have occasionally appeared in your paintings—stones, sticks, fragments of the natural world. For the most part, though, you were devising your own shapes. You created a whole geometrical lexicon.
Owen: My wife got a Compaq Deskpro with a rudimentary graphics program. A big, ten-megabyte hard drive! I would draw a scribble or a curve, and the program would translate it as best it could, as a series of stacked squares. I would enlarge those, project them, and cut templates out of posterboard. That gave me an arsenal of shapes, hundreds of them, that I could press into the clay.
Rail: I remember those templates hanging on the walls. They were a bit like the whimsical, rasterized designs that Albert Oehlen was doing a few years later, in the ’90s. But by then, your process had changed again: you gave up clay, you went smooth. Could you describe your current process? How do your paintings get made?
Owen: I’m a laminator. I begin by making abstract collage elements on coated paper. I’ve taken to calling them “skins.” I make dozens more than I’ll ever use.
Rail: Hundreds of them. And they’re all different. Stripes, painterly lariats, glyphs, plaids, and these new folded ones, which look like X-rays of paper airplanes. They’re demonstrations of the incredible variety of things that can happen with paint. Your artisanal ingenuity seems to be pretty limitless.
Owen: I’m a child of the acrylic age. I was talking to Mark Golden [of Golden Acrylic Paints], a few weeks ago and he asked me to conduct a workshop. But I borrowed a line from Barnett Newman: “Artists have secrets because they have earned them.”
Rail: But maybe we can talk about one fairly simple example: the striped skins. Some of them are almost barcode patterns in color. They are made with customized squeegies. I am looking at a whole bucket of those squeegies. I imagine a young painter could make a pretty interesting début show—by just borrowing that bucket.
Owen: The squeegies are notched in various ways. And as you run a notched squeegee across wet paint, you can hold it straight, or you can shimmy it. And then I have new squeegees that are flexible—a whole different set of possibilities. I’ve always been a big believer in tools.
Rail: Once you have enough skins, what happens?
Owen: I begin to peel them off the poly, and I place them, compose them. But the whole process is front-to-back. It’s the opposite of the conventional way of layering an image. The first skins I lay down will appear as the front layer of the painting.
Rail: So in a sense you are working both backwards and blind. You can’t really see what you are doing.
Owen: I have to rely on my memory. I always say that when I get Alzheimer’s my paintings are going to get really interesting. But yes, it’s true, the paintings are ninety percent complete before I actually see them. Sometimes when that happens, there’s a moment of triumph, sometimes gut-sinking dismay.
Rail: In the completed paintings, there’s an overall sense of packed heterogeneity, a kind of freewheeling inclusiveness. I like the critic Lyle Rexer’s term for it, “a new Vorticism.” So many shapes and scales, shifting orientations, a sense of supercharged disarray. And in color, the same quality—bright transparent oranges, blues, reds, yellows. Here in your studio, I’m looking at this incredible army of mixed paints in bottles: every color in the rainbow. And you use most of them. It’s like a Fort Knox of chroma here.
Owen: I always say, there are no bad colors. I want the paintings to feel rambunctious. Extravagant. Unruly. And this new exhibition will be especially that way. The last one was more grid-based. I was thinking about the rafts my friends and I used to build as kids. There were these sluggish side streams that fed into the Sacramento River. We would weave rafts out of flotsam, branches, planks, and twine. We’d try to float them, even stand on them. So the grids were like that: kind of skewed, ad-hoc, flippant. Not the totally serious grid that a real Minimalist of the ’70s might advocate. They had a kind of jocular impulse in them. But these new paintings are off the grid. More akimbo. Like somebody kicked the struts out, and everything is flopping or tumbling.
Rail: The “jocular impulse” that you mention; that sounds very Californian.
Owen: Well, that was always a permission you had out there: you could make a joke in your art. I am not crazy about people who are entirely serious. I don’t think Don Judd and I would have gotten along. But Sol LeWitt and I would have! For me, it’s always about openness.
Rail: But there are different kinds of openness. Yours always feels crowded, unprecious, even gregarious. Like yourself. And it’s strange to think of such a gregarious person working in such a quiet, isolated area. The winters up here are long. I sometimes imagine that the crowded vitality of your paintings is compensatory. That here in the wilderness you are creating your own metropolis.
Owen: That might be true. Who wants to make paintings that are as comfortable as a wood fire? Putting people to sleep? Sure. Self-generated excitement! That’s what we’re doing.
P.S. The Slant Step
Rail: Remind me about the Slant Step.
Owen: William Wiley found it in a salvage shop in Mill Valley: an inexplicable household object, covered in green linoleum. The women in the store said, “Well it’s just always been here. It’s a slant, and you can’t stand on it. We don’t know what to do with it.” And so they charged him fifty cents, and he took it back to his studio. Nauman and Wiley made work about the Slant Step. And then, in ’66, there was a show at the Berkeley Gallery in San Francisco where a bunch of Bay Area artists decided they would all make art about the Slant Step. They couldn’t figure out a reasonable way to hang the work, so they just piled everything in a corner. The only thing on a pedestal was the Step itself. And then Richard Serra, on his way to New York, stole it off the pedestal and took it to New York.
Rail: Serra stole it?
Owen: Or appropriated it or whatever. And later on, people saw it in his loft, and took it back to California. Eventually it came into my possession just as I was just beginning to teach at Cal State Sacramento. I walked in the first day of class with the Slant Step. About a third of the class already knew what it was. I put it on the model stand, and unrolled big rolls of paper on which I’d written various phrases, like “drawn across,” “drawn tight,” “drawn and weary.” They were to draw the Slant Step, as modified by these phrases. And you know what I did my last day of teaching? I was teaching at the University of Vermont in 2010, and my last class was exactly the same as my first one.
Rail: You brought the Slant Step back?
Owen: Faculty and staff, beginning art students, anybody who wanted to come, they all drew the Slant Step. We had another list of phrases. I read William Witherup’s “Slant Step Chant” while they drew.
Rail: So you were the custodian of the Step for what, forty years?
Owen: Forty-five. Art Schade and I formed the New York Society for the Preservation of the Slant Step. We loaned it out to exhibitions several times, insured for a quarter of a million dollars. But in the end, when we gave it away, we each took a tax deduction of 25 cents. The original purchase price.
Rail: Where is the Slant Step now?
Owen: Safely in the collection of the UC Davis art gallery, the Shrem Museum. If you want to know more about its history, you can read The Slant Step Book, by Phil Weidman, or Christopher Knight’s piece in the Los Angeles Times last year. Knight ends by quoting an email that seems to solve the mystery of its original purpose. Shortly before he died, Witherup thought he figured it out, and emailed Peter Plagens. But I am not so sure he was right. If he is, it’s proof that some mysteries are better left unsolved.
ALEXI WORTH is an artist. He lives in New York.