Robert Bordo (b. 1949) is a Montreal-born, New York-based painter. His quasi-abstract paintings were included in MoMA PS1’s Greater New York show (October 11, 2015 – March 7, 2016) as well as being the subject of a micro-retrospective at Bortolami Gallery (April 28 – June 18, 2016). Bordo is an Associate Professor of Art at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and Faculty at Bard MFA.
I met Bordo when I was a student at Cooper in the early 2000s. I wasn’t making paintings at the time, largely because of the influence of institutional critique and a sense of urgency around political and social content. As it turns out, he was working through a similarly conflicted position. We spoke at the Bortolami space during his show there.
Seth Cameron (Rail): Let’s start with the earliest painting in the exhibition, Denim #1 (1996). Could you tell me a little about where your thinking was in the ’90s?
Robert Bordo: I was reading Smithson, liking Richard Long and conceptual artists that were working with topography, mapping, thinking about nature, landscape, the outdoors, the trail. It was really interesting for me to think of abstract painting as a trail. A place to walk around, explore, and rediscover the terrain, as well as a historical narrative about painting that I could access through imagery and genre.
A lot of the processes I was using in the early ’90s to make my paintings were informed by thoughts of mapping, of walking, of pictorial spaces that referred to the body. And the brush was merely the covering or glazing tool, creating a surface to be imprinted or sanded down. The result was often more towards monochrome painting, working with the “void” as a space, but with an attitude of disturbed humor about modernism.
Denim #1 is a good example, where a blue monochrome is embedded with timberland boot prints, night and darkness in the form of thick swipes of blue paint obliterate the trail—there’s a gay cruising narrative for you.
At the time, painting was going through one of its mini deaths, and there wasn’t a whole lot of interesting new painting for me to think about. I was looking elsewhere: the art that concerned itself with identity politics and culture compelled me to rethink my own position. I was taken with artists like Byron Kim and Glenn Ligon, who were using the monochrome as a blank slate, an empty cultural space to fill with discourse, bringing in different kinds of issues: political, social, feminist, and gay. And so I was very swept up in that too, but continued to want to find my way as a painter.
I was also not always so serious, and I thought it would be funny to make small paintings about very big ideas, as part of an anti-monumental gesture that had a lot to do with not fitting in with my generation of painters, the generation of neo-Expressionists and East Village artists.
Rail: I have a theory that your paintings are attempting to reconcile two trajectories of the plastic mark in modernism. One points toward a crisis of identity, the other toward a crisis of the sublime. By crisis of identity, I’m thinking of Velazquez celebrating himself in Las Meninas, painting the paint. I’m thinking of what Manet was up to. And I’m thinking of Salvador Dalí. Your “skinny jeans” paintings for me refer directly to his paranoiac critical method, where there is an unstable image, like the rabbit that’s also a duck. It’s either jeans or a skull.
Bordo: I see the crisis of the sublime through the monochrome, and use the underpainting as a carrier of subject matter, suggesting that content lies below the surface. Since the “Skinny Jeans” paintings have multicolored layers underneath, the performance of the paintings is very much about revealing the surface as incidents of light, brushstroke and touch and (sometimes symbols or graphic images) so there is always a double text of “painting the paint” and revealing the image that states it’s also an act, a performance of text and subtext. The drawing/scraping into the “skinny jeans” paintings with a palette knife reveal the vibrant colors underneath and present a comic (unstable) image—along with the ambiguity of a possible lurking figural presence, the psyche of the painting. The jean pockets become simultaneously a lens and a face and a body and a stare. So there’s a sexual narrative combined with a 19th-century meditative subject—an old skull, or face peering out? They’re hopefully both humorous and dark.
Rail: On the other hand, you have the plastic mark from Modernist landscape, as in Constable and Corot. You have the mark dissembling against the transcendental experience of nature. The mark is letting us know there is mastery, but it’s an ironic mastery.
Bordo: It’s interesting you bring up Corot and Constable and the Romantic period. I see my handling of the touch, mark making and the activation of the space being about this constant tension between the two dimensional surface, deep space, and the opening up of an expansive subject space—towards a kind of “modest” sublime that started for me when I was a student interested in Poussin and composition—the postcard paintings are concerned with a transliteration of landscape space and compositional layering.
At the same time I was troubled about what was then talked about as “the end game of painting.” I was drawn to minimalism, especially to Reinhardt and Newman, but Clyfford Still was an important figure for me too; I imagined in him a kindred spirit, a Northern explorer, a bit of a crank, as an abstract landscape painter and mapmaker.
The paintings that I love and admire the most for their handling of touch and plasticity that we’ve been talking about are by Corot. And there are others, earlier painters, the French painters that went to Rome—Henri de Valenciennes and an English a painter named William Jones—who made paintings that anticipate the modern, combining plasticity of surface, abstraction, and the view. And “the view,” for example, is often the Palatine Hills of Rome, which were part of a set of conventions, Neo-Classical motifs that this international group of plein-air painters were invested in as a vehicle to the sublime. I imagined the plains of that genre of romantic landscape painting resembling the planes of an abstracted landscape imagery that I was working on in tentative abstractions. I was looking for a way to construct a series of paint moves that could open the picture space into a vista and while continuing to maintain its flat compression, which is Cézanne. Incidentally, before I came to the “postcard” paintings I was making abstract paintings in landscape color palettes, but they were made by applying paint with spatula swipes and scraping into informal grids about touch and color.
Rail: How did you come to the postcard paintings?
Bordo: I was taken by an installation of Kabakov in a show, Dislocations curated by Rob Storr at the Museum of Modern Art (October 20, 1991 – January 7, 1992). The Kabakov installation (and this is how I remember it, it may have been very different) looked like a narrow room in a nursing home or hospital: there were two single beds, each with a video screen suspended, and on the screens were loops of somewhat blank, generic landscapes. At that time, I was taking care of my mother in a nursing home in Montreal. She had dementia and she kept referring to very simple memories, to place and to landscape, like a swing, a sky, a dress on a clothesline. And then after she died, I found the collection of postcards that she had sent to us, her sons at home when she was traveling abroad. So the shoeboxes of postcards became an archive for me to work with, bringing together the desire to make painterly paintings again, but this time about landscape and memory.
Rail: They look like they were a lot of fun to paint.
Bordo: Oh yeah, these were fantastically fun paintings because they’re like puzzles. But it’s actually quite simple: it was always the search for the horizon. So I would work them like an abstract painting, constantly readjusting the possibility of a horizon, or a space that could be read through horizontality, and so it just allowed for so many different possible images of sky and land, repeating and echoing pictorial spaces and places to roam. Also, I really got in to using specific brushes again, fancy sable brushes and fan brushes, so it was a combination of working with “la belle peinture” and process abstraction simultaneously. During this period I had begun to spend time during the summers in upstate NY, working in garages of summer rentals—so I was often painting in “plein-air” ha-ha! And so in a sense, in the period of the late ’90s and early 2000s during the culture wars and “the death of painting,” I, perversely, made romantic paintings. I fled into my studio and made these paintings about memory, space, touch, and loss. And they weren’t seen very clearly then. They were deemed as sentimental (perhaps they are!) and that was difficult for me to handle, but I kept making more of them. Now, looking back, it feels like such a singular decision, but I don’t know if it was necessarily so brave. I was reading Siebald then and his writings were a big influence on this body of work. I was inspired to follow my observations and to find ways to both entertain myself and to create a space to think about landscape and abstraction.
Anyway, I’m rambling a little, but these paintings came from choosing to engage in art that at the time at least within contemporary culture, gay culture, seemed forbidden, conservative and wrongheaded.
Rail: How so?
Bordo: There was a culture then, almost a requirement, that one needed to build platforms and contexts (social or political) to support one’s thesis, and then material practice would follow. These issues were pressing, because by this time I had begun to teach at Cooper Union. I was negotiating between promoting a rigorous painting model and a new context—conversations with students and colleagues about contemporary art issues and institutional critique. So it was a very complicated time for me as an educator, to figure out how to insist on a conversation about painting rigor in relation to contemporary art. I continued to go the way that I needed to with my own work, both protecting it from the institutional framework and furthering my ideas about painting in school and in the studio—it was a tough, amazing time.
Rail: That concern that your paintings didn’t fit the conditions of the time, does that recur?
Bordo: It’s a recurring feeling. But I think about it less and less. I became keenly aware of it because of my teaching at Cooper and Bard MFA: the constant debate about painting’s relevance and efficacy in relation to image production, etc. I’m grateful for the argument and exposure; it’s part of my life. I hear from younger artists that they like my work and think it’s relevant, but who knows?
Rail: You started teaching full-time just before Denim #1. Do you see the development of your approach to pedagogy mirrored in the studio practice?
Bordo: I like thinking on my feet, and finding ways to be a fluid critical sounding board comes from years of teaching and wanting to offer an open conversation around painting, while still having very strong opinions about what the education of a painter should be. I see my intellectualism as coming from practice more than from constructing positions. I don’t really see my pedagogy as being directed through ideology, but more as constantly being an observer of the culture, thinking about history and, of course, being reactive and quizzical. So being around Cooper students has dovetailed with the kind of thinker and artist that I am, and so the work is always in a kind of transitory state—mind and body moving through the cultural landscape feeling kind of like a hobo. What is interesting for me is that this show at Bortolami exposes the transitory nature of my painting practice. There’s walking, looking, there’s thinking (so many of my more abstract mark- making paintings are about thinking), there’s lust, desire, mortality, there’s all of these different verbs that refer to the experience of being in the world and painting.
Rail: The horizon line in Weekend (2010), to me, is really funny. Because without it you have a very traditionally sophisticated idea, creating a sense of horizon without a signifying line, and in this painting you get away with doing both.
Bordo: Well, the line is a line in the sand of this painting. So descriptively the line is provisionally stating where the horizon line took place or could take place again, so it reveals the under painting. Without the line it would be a ”sophisticated “ abstract painting, but with that line the layers underneath are revealed. So it’s a painting with a history, which gives it a funny circumspect attitude about how it came to be. It’s about timing—leaving a lip of paint, thickening the brushstrokes on a surface, this interface of two colors. That’s the language I was working with in the more minimal (landscape) paintings where the plastic mark is spatial and, for me, it’s when and how the painting takes place. I like the quality of narrative—which goes back to the instability of the images, the way they slip between image and abstraction.
Rail: Your connection to Corot seems to be very much about mastery: a kind of mastery of the mistake. So often in his landscapes there is this moment, this last moment, when it appears he’s just spattered some white across the surface. It looks like it could be an accident. But it’s also lilies and light.
With the works in this show specifically, you’re highlighting almost singular moves in each painting, a small number of moves that are very different from each other. There’s evidence of mastery through practice. You don’t arrive at any of the moves in these paintings unless you’ve tried them out a number of different times.
Bordo: I started using squeegees and printings tools and different kinds of scrapers in the early ’90s as we’ve discussed. The paintings of that time were exploring process and imagery that were in response to Minimalism and identity politics, so the thick paint was acting to reveal and conceal the imprints of the boot prints or arrows, and those subjects are very different than why I’ve come back to that technique now. With the “glasses” paintings in the Greater New York show, they presented me a new opportunity to use thick paint squeegeed across the surface again. And the reason was I had the idea to represent the figural as thick grey paint, as kind of flesh, and then contain it within the framework of glasses and speech bubbles and rearview mirrors. So the material part of my imagination is always in need of a trigger, a signifier, a poetic, or a joke. I can’t just make paintings simply using the technical vocabulary that I’ve found over time because doing so alienates me and eludes me. The material and formal are connected to content, so they require some kind of story structure, some voice, a metaphor, something topical in the culture that I’m reacting to. It’s a transitory position where the techniques that I’ve developed over years come back and say, “Hey! You can do this again!” And it’s so great when that happens, and if there is mastery that comes from that collision and excitement I’m so glad for it. But mastery is the byproduct, not the goal.
The technical aspects, for me, really come from the subject. Perhaps it’s an affinity I have with certain artists—European painters mostly—who are interested in history, and who work with photographs and images. Merlin James’s pivots through photography archives, materiality, motif, and elaborations on the two dimensional support. I’ve been interested in Luc Tuymans’s use of the Xerox machine as a painting tool not merely to make materialist formalism but to determine historical trace, commentary and touch. So it is in the interface of materials with process that creates the actual practice for me. I love the tension between the pure painting part of working and the internal logic and content that develops in the making of space—so “mastery by mistake” is a great way to describe how I think it happens.