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.